[16 July 2009]
Whether by design or happy accident, certain studio recordings succeed in bringing out the evanescent immediacy in a live performance of the music. Its performers, whether vocalists or instrumentalists, succeed in an ineffable “popping out” from the recording, a characteristic that derives not only from the performers’ abilities but also from the song’s genre, composition and the (non-Spector) recording techniques used.
You are more likely to catch a whiff of this quality from soul recordings a la James Brown or organic jazz and folk tracks than from drowned-in-sound shoegaze inventions that veil their creators in a cloud of withdrawn anonymity. The want for anonymity in, say, the Herbaliser’s “Clap Your Hands” is such that even if we can’t put faces on its various performers, we can still mentally summon up a very live experience through simply listening to the record. The interaction and chemistry between the players can be sensed if not heard, and the stage presence of its soloists detected. And so it is with much of Flevans’ 27 Devils.
The Brighton musician’s debut Make New Friends, on Brighton label Tru Thoughts, was a sample-heavy bricolage that by nature rendered Flevans a faceless sonic magician. By contrast, his sophomore release on the label (after his debut, he signed briefly with London’s Jack to Phono, through which he released another LP and several 12-inches) is his coming-out party as a skilled wielder of real instruments (guitar, bass and piano, among others).
Flevans’ lurch away from programmed beats and bootleg artistry was buoyed somewhat by his recent experience assuming the bass player mantle for Brighton band Backini, an experience that reached its pinnacle when the group performed at 2008’s Glastonbury Festival. On 27 Devils, Flevans further shatters his hyper-programmed schtick by lending his own vocals to several tracks.
It’s no surprise then that 27 Devils is a live album by design. The fact that it largely contains the showmanship of one man, with the exception of a couple tracks featuring singers Sarah Scott and Shona Foster, is never betrayed by its palpable immediacy and intimacy. Kinetic opener “Hold On”, for instance, beckons imaginings of Scott commanding the mic with plenty of affected sass and bodily reinforcement, and the “various” instrumental players interacting like its own ecosystem. Even within the confines of my headphones, the experience of hearing “Hold On” is one of extroverted, sweaty underground jazz haunt. Similarly, “Pretty From a Distance” furnishes the listener with a live “group dynamic” between the beeping brass, tinkling piano, runaway bass and guitar, and syncopated percussion.
While 27 Devils doesn’t break the scaffolding of dance music architecture, it is a solid effort that scales the spectrum of grooves that can be convincingly produced in an organic fashion. Most importantly, it signposts Flevans’ hitherto unknown musical agility. To wit: the musician throws a couple of dyed-in-the-wool blues and vaguely ambiguous tracks into the album’s generally jovial lineup.
Certain tracks are memorable for their familiarity. The titular track is marked by high-kicking drum acrobatics, Maroon Five-like piano-chord jams and angular funk basslines. “Pretty From a Distance” registers with its oft-worked Latin jazz arrangement. (Even so, it’s still really cool.)
The decidedly nightclubby “Endless Things” is as synthetic as the album gets. It’s Basement Jaxx (circa Crazy Itchy Radio) in bed with Jamiroquai, with Flevans’ multitracked chorus and inscrutable screeching audio adornments salting the straightforward house tempo. In a nod to the times we’re in, auto-tune gets four seconds of airtime.
The frivolity of the dance tracks inevitably melts in the presence of the blues numbers, on which Flevans’ songwriting skills shine through. The soporific minor-chord waltzing “More on the Way” is lathered with the shrill vocals of Foster, as she grapples with her inner demons: “The rules that breaks the tears on my pillow / they’ve waged a war with more on the way”. Scott meanwhile soulfully croons about the pitiful wall of low self-esteem barring her from love, in the Norah Jones-meets-Alicia Keys-like “On and Out”.
Between the ebullient high lands and bluesy low lands lie several introspective, electronically informed, enigmatic pieces. As it happens, the more studio-embellished nature of these effectively dissolves the live quality of the album. “All to Play For” has Flevans recovering his vaguely eccentric side, as evidenced in Unfabulous, an LP released on Jack to Phono. Bearing a Bjork/Goldfrapp mien, the track has Foster breaking into distressed vocals and banshee wails over a jitterish high hat-and-snare combo, sullen guitar strums and a crooked bassline.
Album concluder “Neckbone” makes an ostensible foray up cinematic alley. In what could accompany a silent passage in a Tim Burton film, seesawing piano sustains a haunting/creepy running piano sequence via shuffling marching band drums. After its crescendo with the de rigueur addition of swaying strings, the orchestration is stripped away, leaving a slow-burning guitar rock interlude over which Flevans elucidates somewhat the track’s title. “I’m stuck in the sand tonight / but it’s warm beneath my toes / bury me up to my neck / but leave my head exposed,” he chimes in ghostly multitrack.
“Neckbone” may be a lyrically and stylistically ambiguous denouement to 27 Devils, yet its meandering, slightly off-kilter manner means it can’t be anything else. Perhaps Flevans is dangling a teaser of what may come from a musician knee- (not yet neck-) deep in self-exploration. It wouldn’t surprise if he joined others of his ilk in soundtracking television and movies. But with a newly minted triple-album deal with Tru Thoughts, it may be a while yet. Watch this space.