The deeper the Cutler cuts, the less memorable the music is. Just let the surface sparkle.
Downtempo electronic duo the Cutler fell into good graces with the music press four years ago with their eponymous debut. These guys are very busy; not just with this project, but with outside ones as well. Just to give you an idea, the press release describes Steve Cobby, one of the two musicians who make up the Cutler as "fifty percent of Fila Brazillia (with David McSherry), fifty percent of Hey, Rube! (with Stephen Mallinder), fifty percent of J*S*T*A*R (with Sim Lister), one third of Heights of Abraham (with Sim Lister and Jake Harries), and all of The Solid Doctor". The other member is Porky, a DJ and the founder of Pork Recordings. On top of that, this sort of music is prone to ornamentation, sometimes guaranteeing a long incubation period. Is The Best Things in Life Aren't Things a sophomore slump (not counting the 2009 EP Black Flag)? No, it's a little more complicated than that. For every track that causes you to halt whatever you're doing at the moment and listen in, there is at least one other one that underwhelms. Sometimes I think I'm hearing one of the year's better releases. Other times it feels like another generic release designed to go in one ear and out the other.
First, let's get the latter stuff out of the way so that you can leave this review with a decent taste in your mouth. There's a good number of treadmill instrumentals that practically beg for that window-dressing embellishment that so many electronic musicians excel at, thereby creating a new struggle in how and when to cut back. Cobby and Porky oblige. Pretty well too, I might add. Some of these drum fills manage to be pretty impressive without stealing the show. What holds them back is, when stripped down to their base elements, the foundations of these numbers don't hit you like they should. They feel more like incidental music; interludes stretched five minutes beyond their intended length. I found myself more interested in some of the titles more than the actual music: "200 Pharaohs - 6 Billion Slaves", "Teach Yourself Braille" and "Burn the Bankers".
So enough of that and on to the good. As good as the Cutler can be at drawing landscapes, I think they are even better at shaping a song. Two that stand out every time I listen to The Best Things in Life Aren't Things are "Pyramid of Power" and "Revolution". The former is sung by electronic multi-tasker Andrew Taylor. "This pyramid of power really starts to taste sour / When you first realize that it's you in disguise", he sings over a chorus that mimics the verses pretty closely. But that doesn't matter because the core tune is much more powerful this time around. It almost reminds me of post-Alan Wilder Depeche Mode (that's a compliment). "Revolution" is a swifter reggae number sung by the soulful Russell Morgan. Revolutionary the music is not, but again, it doesn't matter. With Morgan's Weller-lite moans and the Cutler's ability to harness an island-meets-the-Isles sound, all involved make "Revolution" the most distinct thing here on the album. The adult-contemporary (that's a compliment, too) rump-shaker "P-A-Y-R" follows, carrying "Revolution"'s urban flavor just a bit further before the Cutler steer their sound back towards lukewarm experimentation.
The Best Things in Life Aren't Things isn't a poor album, and some of it is better than average. It's just that these above-average traits need to come to full bloom. Avant-garde electronic tinkerings can't be just that, they need to smack you where it counts. Steve Cobby and Porky can be a great synthpop duo or a customary pair of sound architects; the choice is theirs.