I can't tell, and would not wish to hazard a guess, as to whether this qualifies as a retrenchment or merely a return to form. Is there a difference?
Blue States have never really come close to achieving any kind of critical mass, and that's a shame. The group -- centered around producer / mastermind Andy Dragazis -- started out back in the halcyon days of the late nineties, playing dreamy, atmospheric electronic music that seemed to split the difference nicely between the Cocteau Twins and DJ Shadow. It was a good time for that kind of post-trip-hop acid-jazz type stuff, but the fact that it was very much of its time meant that it was easily subsumed in the din. 2000's Nothing Changes Under the Sun was excellent, but unless you knew what to listen for you might have missed it altogether. (I only lucked out on account of the fact that I was working in college radio at the time, and a copy almost literally fell in my lap.)
Nothing Changes Under the Sun got a decent push from the Thievery Corporations's Eighteenth Street Lounge label, but remained significantly under the radar. Dragazis added personnel with the second album, 2002's Man Mountain, notably a female vocalist by the name of Tahita Bulmer -- she might just be familiar to you as the femme fatale behind the microphone for the New Young Pony Club. The group's third album, 2004's The Soundings, experimented with a more elaborate band set-up, featuring co-writing and vocal contributions from Chris Carr (who also played guitar). It was substantially more understated in effect than either of their previous albums, dialing back on the cinematic phrasings in favor of something a bit more intimate and restrained. It worked well, except on a handful of ballads. It was a change, even if it did at the time seem to be a conscious attempt to downplay their strengths.
Here we are, a few years later, and Blue States is back, again changed significantly from their earlier incarnation. Only now the new sound seems very similar to the old sound, the sound of their first two albums. I can't tell, and would not wish to hazard a guess, as to whether this qualifies as a retrenchment or merely a return to form. Is there a difference?
Since we last saw Dragazis, he's been pretty busy. He produced the debut album of a new girl group out of England called the Pipettes. Perhaps you've heard of them? Don't worry, First Steps Into... doesn't sound anything like the Pipettes. However, it's interesting, in light of the undeniably masterful anachronistic production work that lies near the heart of the Pipettes' appeal, just how firm a grip Dragazis keeps on Blue Step's mood and form. With a project like this, intangible mood is almost as important as songs or sound, and the mood is wonderfully consistent throughout. This sounds like, well, a lot of things, but it does so in such a way that is manages to create a marvelously distinctive mongrel identity: you've got a bit of late '60s psychedelia ("The Electric Compliment" even resurrects a Sgt. Pepper-esque string section), some very sedate funk (the wah-wah guitar on "First Steps... Last Stand"), and a strong sense of breakbeat-inflected rhythm throughout. The whole effect is, while certainly not wholly original, wholly engrossing, especially for those of us who remember how good Air used to be, before they became prog rockers.
This is a fine album, and it effectively maintains its gently melancholic, reflective mood for the whole of the 47-minute running time. Neither outstaying its welcome nor leaving before its time, it finishes with a sprightly grace note, the nostalgic one-two punch of "Writing Home" and "Last of Old England" -- tracks that yearn for the pastoral pleasures of rural England while remaining firmly planted in the essentially urban ethos of modern electronic music. Through it all, Dragazis manages to make it all look damnably effortless. Music this well-balanced and finely wrought requires a lot of work, and just as he made the Pipettes sound like a blast of fresh air dating back to 1966, so to does he make stately symphonic rock and roll sound positively cutting edge.