You ever hear the one about how the world is just a battleground, a chessboard in a larger conflict between powers far beyond our comprehension, with humans playing the part of mere pawns? That one? Well, hip-hop/downbeat/indie rock group cLOUDDEAD's second album, Ten, is a lot like that. Except instead of good vs. evil, order vs. chaos, or the unseen horror of Cthulhu vs. your puny sanity, the battle that plays out on this disc is that between the sublime and the ridiculous. Otherworldly melodies, unexpected and rich sounds, and magnificent vocal talents line up on one end of the pitch, aiming to make a respectable record -- maybe even a marvelous one. On the other side stand the group's fondness for goofy voices, self-conscious play with hip-hop conventions, and sometimes absurd lyrical digressions, all out to puncture any profundity that steps in their circle. The ensuing brawl is not easily comprehensible, and at any given moment it's never clear who's winning -- but it's frequently entertaining, and the diligent observer will be rightly rewarded with moments of rich contradiction.
cLOUDDEAD attracted a lot of attention with their debut for coming from a hip-hop background, but producing an almost unclassifiable sonic mélange of spacey obscurantism under the influence of trip hop and musique concrete. They keep that sonic excess going here, and though they've moved up from the days of pure four-tracking, they don't abandon the grimy, decrepit feel of the first record, instead leavening the static and fuzz that soaked earlier work with hints of digital destruction, pixilated overdrive and blooming, caustic crunch. And as before, it is from this landscape that their bittersweet melodies arise.
"The Keen Teen Skip" opens with threatening predictability -- a muffled, scratched recording of an English child reciting a folk-rhyme, just the sort of thing that indie rockers have a tendency to use for leaden intro material. But then the crackling 78 skips, at an uncomfortable point that divorces vocal sound from meaning, and Dose One and why? start to chant along with the looping non-syllable, vocalizing in short, staccato bits over the improbable base. Then the song breaks out, still anchored by the attenuated vocal fragment, but embellished with a stop-start rhythm that meshes snugly with both the rhythm and mood of the disembodies voice. Bits and pieces slowly unfold from this uncomfortably conceptual start, and a true song emerges about two-thirds of the way through, when a forceful break, flute trills, and the incongruous but fitting sound of an electric drill mesh for a few moments.
Perhaps the most straightforward song on Ten is "Rhymer's Only Room", with a sneaky sitar line, minimalist rhythm, and droning vocals that fairly scream of The Mysterious East. At first it seems an odd lapse into simplicity, but then the bong-sucking sound effects come in, along with why?'s subversively stereotypical pseudo-Mideastern drones, and it becomes simultaneously a parody of trip-hop, and an enjoyable example of the genre. The group undercuts itself over and over again in similar ways, lapsing into muggy over-pronunciation, faux-Cockney accents, and intentionally overserious pronouncements.
Though interesting, this sort of snark unfortunately distracts from the real strengths of the group, including their mastery of poetic, abstract imagery. This doesn't really come to the fore on Ten until you hit the halfway mark with "Rifle Eyes", on which why? raps about "A spider spinning web on a Styrofoam snowman's head, car salesmen asleep in their cars on lunchbreak", setting a scene of suburban hustle in which absolutely nothing happens. This leads smoothly into "Dead Dogs Two", the track that is rightfully garnering the bulk of the attention being paid to Ten, a gruesomely beautiful meditation on mortality in the guise of midtempo synth-pop. Why? and Dose swap lines smoothly, sketching two bloated canine corpses as a delicate still life, then teasing out the inspirations that follow. They find themselves unable to look away, and observe, "We secretly want to be some part of a car crash / You want to see your arm stripped to the tendon". The tension between this gruesomeness and the vocalists' coy delivery, between their (literally) cutting commentary and the twee synth melody, is perhaps the album's signature moment of unity between crazed and amazing.
Ten was at one point expected to be released by Ninja Tune, but (without knowing the story firsthand), I can imagine why that didn't quite happen -- despite strong moments like "Dead Dogs Two" and "The Velvet Ant"' (a faithful recounting of a thoroughly surreal video shoot), the album is nonetheless a bit of a sophomore slump. The trio have returned to the territory of their debut, but somehow failed to recapture the lightning that animated it. The new songs fail to evoke the pure wonder in the mundane that cLOUDDEAD pulled off, while, despite some stretching in that direction, also failing to quite bridge the gap between soundscapes and songcraft. Though the more immediate explanation may have to do with some internal pressures and a temporary split during the making of the record, it's easy to go Freudian and speculate that cLOUDDEAD are somewhat afraid of crossing that line into full-on pop structure. There are some hints, though, that the sublime will ultimately trump the ridiculous, and hopefully the ultimate outcome will be a more song-strong album next time around.