[12 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
What do you think of when you think of blue films? Me, I’ll always associate it with the term blue movies, which, of course, is naturally pornography, in all of its slickness and grotesquery in equal measure. Well, Los Angeles-based artist and producer Matthew Hemerlein, who records under the alias Lo-Fang, has brought those elements to the table with his debut for the 4AD label, famously home to ethereal acts such as Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins. Ranging from broad styles such as classical to modern-day electronica, Lo-Fang effortlessly ping-pongs between diverse styles, and offers everything vocally from a soulful R&B croon to a Bon Iver-worthy falsetto. There’s a great deal going on with Blue Film, said debut, stuff that makes you wonder how high the stakes were in recording this. Influenced by Hemerlein’s travels from Maryland, Cambodia, London, Nashville, and Los Angeles, Blue Film is a whirlwind of sonic detail that ebbs and flows throughout its 43-minute runtime. It’s an astonishing listen, as there’s slippery shape-shifting at work on this LP that may make the listener’s heart stop cold. It’s apparent that Hemerlein is a talent to watch, one that has been drawing the inevitable James Blake comparisons (just without the dubsteppiness), and Blue Film is a mostly electrifying and forceful listen.
The album’s overreaching theme of pornography takes shape on song “When We’re Fire” as Hemelein deftly swoons, “Lately / Nothing has been coming easy / Only nocturnal movies / Pink kimono on the floor.” The glistening title track offers, “I told you / We will do a million takes / I’ll control you / Hold you until you have changed / But it’s a blue film / Blue film we made.” And the frantic “Animal Urges” tells us to “make no mistake” about the object of his affection. The cover of “Boris” by the female duo BOY, meanwhile, has the following bon mots: “I said, baby, come up to my office / You played at my party / I owe you some money / You owe me your lips / I’m gonna give tips / I heard your boyfriend’s out of town.” Ouch! This is an album that is dripping with sexiness and wretchedness in equal measure from start to finish. Hermelein romanticises that in which there is no romance, just the pure unadulterated sweat of doing the nasty in every which way possible. In that sense, this is a record about sex in the most abject way possible, and its artist seems to be having more than a fun time unspooling his narratives of utter debauchery. It’s a wonder, in some respects, that this is on the 4AD label at all, as you get the impression that Lo-Fang’s peers couldn’t handle the perverse nature of the lyrical department.
But, just as surprising is the way in which these songs change their sound on a moment’s notice. “Boris” offers a laid-back shuffling acoustic guitar melody with vinyl scratchiness and dust colouring the background, along with some drippy strings. “Look Away” starts out as a club baiting bit of electronica, but at the 2:17 mark, the piece turns into a banjo-led melody for the remainder of the track, offering a great deal in the surprise department. “Blue Film” starts out as an infectious bit of eight-bit electronica, before completely slowing down and offering the sounds of tastefully plucked harps. But, best of all, and perhaps because there isn’t very much deception aside from drum tracks that disappear and reappear, is “Animal Urges”, which alternately gurgles with strings plucking over a thudding, relentless beat (when it happens). Despite my preference and favoritism towards “Animal Urges”, this is a record that is a little like a jack-in-the-box. You think it’s going to go one way, and then it completely turns and does an about face, a total 180 degree shift, on you. This shiftiness definitely keeps you on your toes and wonder what on earth might come next.
That all said and done, Blue Film, for all its allusions sometimes towards an ambient soundtrack, might be a little too languid for its own good, and may lull the listener into a diabetic coma of gloopy strings and keyboards without much in the way of beat-making at times. “Confusing Happiness” just glides along and goes really nowhere before petering out. And while “You’re the One That I Want” (which oddly is a reworking of the song from the musical Grease) is a nice enough ballad, it doesn’t really move in the way that it should. As you can tell if you’re glimpsing the tracklisting, the majority of these digressions occur in the very final stages of the album. In fact, final track “Permutations” stops the record dead cold and leaves you wondering just how much more the artist could have had to give. Still, Blue Film is an interesting treat of a record, one that offers bombshell after bombshell, and it’s easy to see the craft and care and conviction that went into its making. A string of songs offering glitchy low-beat techno, classical and ambient styles, Blue Film offers a great deal to those expecting something different in their musical diet. Not only that, but it portends low down and dirty sexiness to boot. Blue Film is an appealing blast of lo-key songs about you-know-what in the most debase way possible, and if there’s anything close to offering sonic pornography for the ears, well, this might just be the thing to hear. “I look to the future as it blooms” is the very final line that is sung on this LP, and based on the goods here, we definitely can expect a very bright future for the artist known as Lo-Fang, for sure.