Lilacs & Champagne have crafted what will likely stand out as one of 2012's best debut albums with their self-titled LP, mixing trip-hop beats, absurd samples, and an intriguing spy film atmosphere.
The name of Lilacs & Champagne's self-titled debut suggests the proper ingredients to a romantic evening. The mysterious, trippy music that defines the album, however, is anything but romantic. At times, it's sinister.
Lilacs & Champagne, who take their name from a song by ‘70s progger Czesław Niemen, is the side project by Alex Hall and Emil Amos, two members of the Portland-based instrumental band Grails. In a time where other bands can get stuck in the formula of post-rock crescendo and decrescendo, Grails are particularly good at making instrumental rock intriguing. Ther last release, Deep Politics, was something of a genre smorgasbord, mixing dark symphonic parts, heavy guitar riffs, and a soundtrack-like sensibility. Like Grails, Lilacs & Champagne create albums that sound like soundtracks without the film to match the highly evocative music. Making an album sound like a soundtrack runs its risks; at times, the music can sound strangely removed, desperately in need of backing images on a screen. Even virtuoso composers like Eyvind Kang have fallen prey to this problem; he did it with his recent release The Narrow Garden. However, Lilacs & Champagne don't fall prey; while their debut has obvious reference points in various film genres, it is engaging on its own terms. You can let the spy movie play out in your head; it's all the better for it.
In a sense, Lilacs & Champagne picks up where Grails' Deep Politics left off, expanding on some of that album's sounds, most notably its opening track "Future Primitive". There's even a sequel to Deep Politics' "Corridors of Power" in "Corridors of Power II", which creates a rather ominous mood that's a prime example of the record's atmosphere. The whole album sounds like the soundtrack to a noirish spy film. The psychedelic element touted by an accompanying press release is also evident, but the dark, twangy guitar riffs on tracks like "Everywhere, Everyone" create a mood that's more sinister than trippy. Though the former dominates the latter somewhat, both are pretty intertwined, which creates a rather unique mood. I've never done LSD in my life, but based on what I can surmise, this album is the soundtrack to watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle on a particularly dark trip. A strange description, yes, but a fitting one for this excellent, intriguing recording. (It's intriguing in more ways than one: After a basic Google search, you'll still be wondering what a "Moroccan Handjob" is.)
Where the band excels in mood, they also excel in sampling. The Niemen song from which the band takes their name is sampled on "Lilacs" to excellent effect. "Nice Man" opens with a faded sample of an old-timey sing-along, which then gives way to an evangelist's hilarious ramblings: "Of course he's a nice man / Do you expect the Antichrist to be some sort of nasty person?" The smooth bassline of "King of Kings" backs a sample of an old folk song. The trip-hop quality of the samples recalls DJ Shadow, though the band prefers to take one sample and build a whole song around it, rather than Shadow's multi-sample aesthetic. The band also throws in some hip-hop for good measure on album highlight "Battling in the City", which turns the listener's expectations on her head by beginning with a synth and drum intro, which then abruptly gives way to a softly strummed acoustic ballad. The tinny, crackly sounds of old records can be heard throughout, giving the album something of a classic feel despite its innovative stylistics.
As an exercise in mood and as an album of killer music, Lilacs & Champagne succeeds. Hall and Amos clearly had a lot of ideas going on in the making of this music, but after seeing the similarities to this and some of the material they did on Grails' Deep Politics, it seems likely that they took some of the already solid material they had worked with elsewhere and expanded it here. Fortunately, Lilacs & Champagne don't sound like a one-off or a vanity project; this music is bound to go places. The album also sounds like its own unique outlet for the two musicians; it doesn't merely ride Grails' coattails, though there are sonic connections that aren't difficult to make. No project this worthwhile should be relegated to "side project" status.
So put on your glasses, hop in your sports car, and drive through the city at night. Make sure this album is playing: It'll be the soundtrack to your enigmatic evening. And if things happen to take a turn for the psychedelic, all the better.