Alpha's 1997 debut, Come from Heaven, stands as the best morning-after comedown album ever made. On that album, the Bristol, England duo of Corin Dingley and Andy Jenks brought the then-burgeoning trip-hop scene to a new level of cool. They were signed to Massive Attack's label, Melankolic. Their lush soundscapes were anchored by stylized vocals and just enough melody to keep the listener hooked. Like Massive Attack, they knew that the only thing more hip than sampling Burt Bacharach was sampling Isaac Hayes doing Burt Bacharach. In short, they nailed the hazy, smoke-filled after-hours atmosphere that made Massive's first couple albums so effective, and added an extra layer of heartbreak.
After an undistinguished EP the following year, Alpha waited until 2001 to release the follow-up, The Impossible Thrill. That disc was a disappointment. In terms of atmosphere, it was almost literally more of the same. Musically, Dingley and Jenks felt they needed to forgo samples in favor of more live drums, bass, guitar and an orchestra. Perhaps inevitably, melody was an afterthought.
Now, nearly a year after its original UK outing, Nettwerk is releasing a slightly altered version of the duo's third LP, Stargazing. For this "Special Edition", Dingley has re-mastered and re-compiled the album, omitting three tracks from the UK version and adding two new tracks plus (strangely) an EP track from 1995. In either form, though, Stargazing clearly re-establishes Alpha as masters of downbeat, somnambulant electronica.
If you want to know what Stargazing sounds like, just look at the cover. Rarely has an album's outer sleeve so perfectly evoked the music within: The glowing spirals of light bathed in a warm blue background are otherworldly and inviting, abstract but perfectly coordinated. One doesn't so much listen to music like this as become immersed in it, intoxicated by the rippling keyboards, lush strings, and languid rhythms.
A crucial element to Alpha has always been Dingley and Jenks's use of guest vocalists to give shape and emotional resonance to their compositions. On Stargazing, regulars Wendy Stubbs, Helen White, and Martin Barnard are joined by Kelvin Swaybe, and the four contribute to some of the album's best songs. The Stubbs-sung "Once around Town" is as close to pure-pop as Alpha have ever come. With its exuberant chorus and Stubbs's well-mannered singing, it could almost be Saint Etienne. White's "Blue Autumn" sounds like its title, drifting along on a shuffling beat, twinkling piano and warm backing harmonies. Swaybe fits in well and adds an element of soul. His "Elvis" is apparently titled after his breathy, Presley-inspired performance. Without a hint of irony, he truly does the King proud.
Barnard, though, has always been the most affecting of Alpha's voices. His plaintive, buttery croon always sounds like he's just had his heart broken and is on the verge of tears. That seems to be the case in the gorgeous breakup songs "Lipstick from the Asylum" and "Portable Living Room", Barnard's yearning nestled snugly in Dingley and Jenks's sympathetic musical bed. When, in "Lipstick", he says, "I put it on you and me / And now I hate it on you and me", his regret is palpable.
Although it harkens back to Come From Heaven, Stargazing is not merely a retread. Though the samples return, there are fewer of them, and occasional live bass and drums lend a more organic feel to most songs. Instrumentals like "The Things You Might" and "Horseshit" (neither featured on the original version) verge on beat-driven, straight-up techno. And the vocal tracks in particular are more concise, emphasizing verses and choruses with not a lot of meandering in between.
Like the best comedowns, Stargazing is peaceful, intense and ultimately inspiring.