[3 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In the music industry, few titles are as ambiguous as “producer”. If the artists are making the music, after all, just what is the producer producing?
That all depends. In the 1950s and much of the ‘60s, the producer was often responsible for every part of a record except the singing. As more artists started writing songs and playing instruments, some producers took more of a hands-off role. Sometimes they were simply in charge of scoring drugs.
With the advent of hip hop and modern R&B, the producer’s role became more powerful than it had been in decades. Usually, producers of this music are in charge of the instrumentation, with the artist singing or rapping over the top. From the Bomb Squad and Prince Paul to Dr. Dre and Timbaland, the producer credit was just as important as the name on the label.
In this era of indie music and easy, inexpensive, do-it-yourself home recording, one could imagine the producer becoming obsolete. But, oh, what a difference they can still make. Just ask Elephant, the London-based duo of Christian Pinchbeck and Amelia Rivas. Listen to any of the several self-produced singles and EPs they released between 2010 and 2012, and, with the exception of the rather, erm, alluring ode to infatuation, “Allured”, you’ll hear pleasant if rather simply-arranged and nondescript dreampop. Debut album Sky Swimming, however, is a bright, spangled, often symphonic affair that smacks of sophistication. Even when some of those older tunes are reprised, they are rendered in superior, more fully formed versions.
The difference? Well, Pinchbeck and Rivas have surely over time become more adept at playing their instruments and manipulating their home studio. More telling, though, is the presence of producer Andy Dragazis. With a strong background in film and television, Dragazis, working with the band, pulls all the strings behind the curtain. He plays instruments, does string arrangements, and, crucially, adds the thick, no-nonsense hip hop beats that underpin Sky Swimming. Essentially, Dragazis has brought Elephant out of the café and to the grand ball.
Pinchbeck and Rivas have largely made good on the songwriting part, too. The duo were romantically involved when they recorded much of this music, and they intend Sky Swimming to be an invitation to their own series of tastefully hedonistic trysts. Young love creates an us-against-the-world mindset by default, and for 12 songs, you get to be on Elephant’s side. It’s a world where falling asleep in front of the TV, “with nothing but a smile on,” is commonplace, and you “close the curtains in the middle of the day / And only open them up for the moon.” In the immortal words of Bryan Ferry, you can guess the rest.
Within the milieu of sensual, sophisticated coed duos, Elephant are like a less kitchy jj or a more arch Beach House. Actually, Lamb without the drum’n'bass almost nails it. Rivas’s crooning gets the dynamics and come-hither swoons right. She sings with the conviction of someone who actually believes her words are not just lyrics but rather love poetry. Of course, the primary impact of this music is visceral and atmospheric, so what she’s actually saying is of secondary importance. Anyway, her crooning is so heavily accented and laconic at times, you wonder if she isn’t getting paid by the woozy, drawn out vowel.
Sky Swimming doesn’t exactly add much new to the boy-girl dreampop template. It does, however, wear its influences well, and with style. Single “Skyscraper” finds all involved at the peaks of their powers, with its plucked doo-wop guitar line, Rivas’s easy cooing, and the magic touch of ethereal sampled background vocals, wafting in like the ghost of a Bobby Vinton record. “Elusive Youth” and “TV Dinner” are girl-group pop by way of Saint Etienne, while “Shipwrecked” and “Golden” project Cocteau Twins-like cathedrals of sound. As for some of the older tracks, “Allured” is made even more lush, and “Assembly” gets a sharp Europop makeover.
Sky Swimming sags in the middle, but its two best songs come at the end. The title track is not much more than a simple melody over a dubby bassline, but it’s the one that really, truly sinks in. Much of this is down to Rivas’s genuinely affecting vocal. On the chorus especially, she sounds more natural than ever, unguarded, even. Not coincidentally, this is the one track that was written and recorded after the duo’s whirlwind romance came to an end. The alternately swooning and soaring, positively Spectorian “Shapeshifter” is the best of all the album’s sounds weaved into a single, almost transcendent track.
While the pleasures of Sky Swimming are mostly aesthetic ones, with a bit of pruning you’ll find a clutch of wonderfully ornate songs that bear repeated listening. As Pinchbeck and Rivas now know all too well, young love is fleeting, and it’s something of a melancholy thrill listening to them try to cheat time, or maybe just stop it. If a producer’s job is to bring a band’s potential to full fruition, Andy Dragazis has earned his money and then some on Sky Swimming.