Emperor's Nightingale is, despite its inconsistencies, a vital Stereo MCs album, a phrase you wouldn't expect to utter in 2011.
Stereo MCs. The very name evokes a bygone era, if it evokes anything at all. Baggy pants, "Baggy" music, EMF and Jesus Jones. Those were the big trends in English indie music when Stereo MCs’ big hit, Connected, was released. That album's success belied the fact Stereo MCs were the one-and-only "Old School" British hip-hop act, sharing studios and guest appearances with Native Tongues members. Now, the very term "MCs" in a band name is an anachronism. Are Stereo MCs, too?
Surprisingly, no, not really. Like a lot of bands that are overwhelmed by sudden success, Stereo MCs were half-pushed, and half-fell on the commercial sword. They took a decade to follow up Connected, and the resulting Deep Down And Dirty was their last for a major label.
They have since kept a low profile, releasing a couple of albums that have gone unnoticed outside their loyal fan base. Emperor's Nightingale finds the longstanding duo of Rob Birch and Nick Hallam hooked up with the reputable electronica label !K7, for whom they released a DJ Kicks mix in 2000. You could be forgiven for assuming the new album is a laugher. After all, Birch's oversimplified, quasi-mystical positivism seemed a bit hokey way back in 1992.
But Emperor's Nightingale, while it has its weak moments, is strong and confident. Stereo MCs haven't abandoned their well-worn identity. But they have taken some steps in new directions, and those are what really make the album a pleasant surprise.
For one thing, Birch hardly raps at all. His dry, nasal singing voice doesn't have a lot of range, but his sincerity makes up for it. With Birch, you've always gotten the feeling he has really meant whatever he was saying, no matter how corny or cliché it may be.
The single, "Boy", is an excellent example of Birch's familiar voice venturing into a new context. Who could have expected Stereo MCs to do a somber, reflective, nostalgia piece about perseverance, and then get British Jazz wunderkind Jamie Cullum to anchor it on piano? That's just what they've done and, though a dance beat eventually works its way in, "Boy" is driven by Cullum's piano and a keening brass section that sounds like it was sampled from an early Chicago record. It's a totally unexpected career milestone.
It's just too bad that "Boy" is a bit of an aberration given the rest of Emperor's Nightingale. Birch and Hallam stick mainly to the type of melodic, high-energy dance music that has marked most of their career. It's been given a sharp-edged analog makeover and punchy, simplified beatbox rhythms that keep tracks like "Far Out Feeling" and "Sunny Day" sounding plenty current. However, not even the stripped-down, updated production can stop the would-be funk of "Phase Me" or the vaguely Far Eastern "Desert Song" sounding dated.
Thankfully, Emperor's Nightingale offers just enough highlights and new twists to outshine its shortcomings. "2Cando" starts out as proggy, Pink Floyd-like space rock, with a synth pulse, strummed acoustic guitar, and Birch's edge-of-consciousness vocals. A backbeat and quirky synths pick it up, and the track ends up as an entrancing synth-pop experiment. That's followed by the wobbly, relentless "Bring It On". The track's straight-ahead rave vibe is as throwback as its title, but it's given a fresh dubstep-influenced underpinning. Yeah, these middle-aged vets can still pull it off.
At this point, and given Emperor's Nightingale's strengths, you'd like to see Stereo MCs ditch the soul/funk angle altogether and give their songwriting more room to breathe. After all, "Boy" sounds not like a band having a shameless go at a hit, but rather the natural result of a long, eclectic career. Ultimately, Emperor's Nightingale is, despite its inconsistencies, a vital Stereo MCs album, a phrase you wouldn't expect to utter in 2011.