I guess I can understand what compels the creators of electronic and sample-based music to add vocals to their sound. Instrumentals are all well and good for evoking mood, but if you want your tracks to have some personality, there’s no more sure-fire way to add it than by including some velvet-voiced guy or gal crooning, wailing, purring, belting and so forth. The problem is, the second you add vocals, they become the focal point of the song, no matter how much you bury them in the mix (see Moby) or render them abstract with nonsense sounds instead of actual lyrics (see Sigur Rós). It’s simply in our natures to pay more attention to the human voice than to purely instrumental sounds, even when that voice isn’t actually singing any words. Sung sounds are also far easier to remember than instrumentals, as anyone who’s ever gotten “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” stuck in his head can vouch for.
The lesson that can be drawn from this for all you electronic music producers out there is twofold. First, it’s better to use multiple vocalists, a la Thievery Corporation, Blue Six, Zero 7, etc., because this way the personality and style of no single vocalist is going to overshadow yours. Second, if you choose to ignore lesson one, you had better make damn sure the vocalist you do stake your entire album on doesn’t suck.
To be fair, Nina Miranda, the voice on Arkestra One’s debut album, doesn’t actually suck. It would be more accurate to say that she’s a fair-to-middling talent with a sweet falsetto who’s simply overused by the one-man band behind Arkestra One, Matthew Timoney. Which is too bad, because while the self-titled Arkestra One has its moments, it, like Miranda’s voice, is a little too thin to leave much of a lasting impression.
Timoney, a Londoner originally from Finland, first gained attention for a loungetronica number called “Skydiving” that made its way on to some Compost Records compilations a few years back. The track, which turns up here as the album’s finale, is a repetitve snoozer in my opinion, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste. On the strength of it, Timoney was able to record this, his debut album, and get it released Stateside by that most prestigious of American downtempo labels, Thievery Corporation.s Eighteenth Street Lounge Music.
The Thieves’ taste is usually impeccable, but I’m not sure I agree with this latest addition to their roster. When Timoney isn’t conjuring up bland cocktail jazz backdrops for Miranda’s insipid lyrics on songs like “I Really Want You” and “How Could I Love You More” (and the titles really tell you all you need to know), he’s churning out melancholy, ambient pop that’s highly reminiscent of other artists like Blue States, Zero 7, and Air, the latter of whom Timoney admits was his inspiration for taking his own stab at music-making. Although the flute-embellished “Into the Light” is practically grounds for an Air lawsuit, other tracks, like the spooky, trip-hop-tinged “Sirens” venture into more original territory — Timoney does have a knack for injecting this style of music with some fresh touches.
The problem, on “Sirens” and other nicely evocative tracks like the seaside samba of “Hot Sand” and the mournful “Shine” (both of which make better use of Miranda, mainly because they have her singing in her native Portuguese so you can’t tell how lame her lyrics are), is that they’re really just mood pieces. As songs, they don’t go anywhere, and they reveal little else on repeat listenings. Even when Timoney livens things up with some entertaining vocal samples, as on “Filling It With Sound” and especially the hilarious “Man From the Audience”, which features a faith healer asking a reformed pothead if he’s ready to “get stoned on Jesus”, his backing tracks don’t really add much except a few looped beats and jazz-pop orchestrations. It’s stylish, artfully rendered wallpaper, but it’s wallpaper all the same.
The most promising stuff on Arkestra One are the tracks that really reveal Timoney’s fascination with Brazilian music. The Brazilian/loungetronica combo has been done a million times before, but somehow, Timoney’s rendition of it still manages to stand out, especially on “Train to Machu Pichu”, which layers percussion and vocals into a silky, undulating groove, and the aforementioned “Hot Sand”. If Timoney can find better collaborators for his future projects — sorry, Ms. Miranda — and pursue this sound further, he may be on to something. In the meantime, Arkestra One’s music isn’t bad, but in the crowded field of downtempo and ambient pop it has little to offer that we haven’t heard before.