The Cinematic Orchestra: Man With a Movie Camera

Tom White

The Cinematic Orchestra

Man With a Movie Camera

Label: Ninja Tune
US Release Date: 2003-04-22
UK Release Date: 2003-05-26

The Cinematic Orchestra are possibly one of the most well respected UK dance acts around. Although their sound is varied, it's the blend of live instruments coupled with a bit of electronic wizardry has managed to form a group of musicians capable of seamlessly blending soul, jazz and hip-hop into something truly beautiful and original.

J.Swinscoe is the main man behind the group that has spawned two previous albums -- Motion and more recently Every Day -- as well as a 1998-2000 remixes collection that was only released Stateside. They have achieved remarkable success with excellent arrangement skills and selective use of apt vocalists such as Fontella Bass and Roots Manuva. Their music has been snapped up by countless TV ad campaigns and has been highly praised by many critics including world music guru Gilles Peterson.

As for the Cinematic Orchestra's employers, Ninja Tune as a label is usually associated with the more leftfield releases. The likes of Amon Tobin, who blends beats, burps and farts, is one rather unfortunate example. But the label has also pioneered the much lauded Coldcut and the eclectic but brilliant DJ Food. However, the Cinematic Orchestra are certainly the most accessible group on Ninja Tune's books as they seem to ooze cerebral class and, more importantly, embrace well-refined melody. The instrumentation ranges from dirty jazz organs to luscious string arrangements usually backed by booming double bass coupled with layered synths and brass.

Man With a Movie Camera began life as a soundtrack to an avant garde silent Soviet movie. OK, so its sounds a little bizarre and ostentatious on paper, but do persevere. The idea behind this concept came in 1999 when the Porto Film Festival played host to a one-off performance by the Cinematic Orchestra over Dziga Vertov's The Man With a Movie Camera. This proved a great success as almost all of the material scored for the film appeared on the sensational Every Day album that followed. The film itself was very experimental in its use of camera angles and Vertov's cut-and-paste style depicting life for a day in Russia was strangely hip-hop in its ideals.

The obvious danger of releasing a film score as a stand-alone album is that there is no visual material to accompany the release so it could become a little abstract and serve simply as almost background music as a consequence. Fortunately, the Cinematic Orchestra do not slip into this category although strangely the decision was taken not to include the film combined with the music on the DVD. But it is the audio that is being reviewed and the sound is on the whole both rich and sumptuous. Yet the main detraction from the whole affair is a lack of new material as many of the tracks featured on this latest release have already appeared on Every Day).

There certainly was an initial disappointment of discovering this repetition on Man With a Movie Camera but as a standalone package the music in general stands up strongly to criticism. New arrangements and instrumentation for the majority of the cuts have been included giving the Cinematic Orchestra an essentially 'live' feel that many fans, myself included, have been pining for.

A downside is definitely the absence of any vocalists, such as Fontana Brass and Roots Manuva, who appeared on Everyday. The epic "All things to All Men" sounds less whole without the laid-back rap of Roots Manuva, although it is still a wonderfully constructed soundscape that ebbs and flows and is the standout track on the album.

After a few listens it becomes apparent that repetition is a real problem within this release. For instance "Reel Life" (Evolution II) uses the same string riff looped over and over to very poor effect. Also, although the track listing looks mighty impressive on first glance, it turns out that many of the 17 titles are little skits or interludes that seem to add little to the listening experienced as a whole. This includes "Yo Yo Walz", "Drunken Tune", and "Human Tripod" to name but a few.

However, there are some excellently constructed tracks that should not be tarred with the same brush. The outstanding "All Things to All Men" has already been mentioned. There is also "Russian Record", which weaves strings and acoustic guitar towards a brilliant moment that sees a shift into a surprisingly effective descending bass line. Also "Voyage" ups the tempo somewhat with a funky organ riff interspersed with horn stabs and that signature double bass.

The message is very clear. If you have never heard of the Cinematic Orchestra then do yourself a massive favour and invest in Every Day. It is far superior and features the Cinematic Orchestra in all its glory combining a terrific blend of laid-back, understated jazz combined with all the tricks of sampling and electronic manipulation. Man With a Movie Camera seems to be somewhat lacking without the movie to accompany. There are just not enough high points on this latest release but when the Cinematic Orchestra does peak it is a sound full of space and vibrancy that demands your attention.

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