There are plenty of reasons to like British one man band Richard Warren, AKA Echoboy. He comes across as sort of an electronic version of Badly Drawn Boy; aside from the rather silly pseudonym, he's a multitalented musician/songwriter (apparently Noel Gallagher wanted him to join Oasis at one point) who can write quality, introspective, genre-bending songs that at times hint at greatness. His new album, Giraffe, sounds excellent, exquisitely combining electronic music with live instruments, and he proves to be a welcome change in the world of techno music, an artist who's not afraid to go back to a simpler pop song structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus. The new album gets off to a spectacular start, but nearly 20 minutes later, for some unfathomable reason, the entire album goes all to hell, and while you really want to pull for Echoboy, you can't get the feeling of disappointment and wasted potential out of your head. The fact is, he dropped the ball, plain and simple.
Oh, but what a start this album gets off to. The lead-off track, and first single, "Automatic Eyes", is near perfect. A brilliantly executed rip-off of New Order circa the Technique album, it opens with a humming synth and layers of backwards guitar tracks, before giving way to a thumping drum beat and insistent, Bernard Sumner-style acoustic guitar (think "Run 2").Warren's layered, distorted vocals come in, singing, "There's things that we might never know/There's things that we might never show each other/Although we're living by each other's side." By the time the chorus rolls along, and Warren's obvious Peter Hook bass rip-off starts, the song reaches a euphoric peak that doesn't let up for four minutes. It's that combination of goofy lyrics, shameless adoration for New Order, and a sunny melody that makes "Automatic Eyes" an early entry for one of the best singles of 2003, and it just might be better than anything New Order puts out this year.
The next three songs, while not quite measuring up to "Automatic Eyes", still manage to hold their own quite well. "Don't Destroy Me" has more of an IDM, or electroclash feel (a lazy critic's way of saying it sounds like mid-Eighties electropop), as a galloping drum machine beat propels the song's minimalist synth arrangements. Warren's voice isn't masked by effects this time, his voice sounding like Oasis' Liam Gallagher after inhaling a balloon full of helium; the song gradually works its way to a gentle, sublime climax, as he nasally sings, "Don't destroy me, I'll take cover." Meanwhile, "Comfort of the Hum" is a more straightforward pop rock song, bearing a remarkable similarity to Badly Drawn Boy's piano-driven pop. Over a snappy walking bass line, Warren professes his love of the city over small-town life: "Concrete inspires me/Not your leafy silent village streets/Road signs are all masterpieces/Dig until we find the route to the beat." "Summer Rhythm" is the most creative track on the album, possessing a thrumming, stuttering beat, an intriguing cut-and-paste assembly, and a gentle, pleasant, AM radio-friendly guitar solo.
The rest of Giraffe, however, just collapses on itself, taking a turn toward the dark and sober. Both "High Speed in Love" and "Fun in You" are attempts at brooding techno pastiches, but pale in comparison to something like the warped genius of Norway's Kaada, whose most recent album masters the sound. Even weirder are the songs "Lately Lonely" and "Wasted Spaces", which are nothing but lazy Primal Scream imitations, with their harsh beats and aggressive synths, not to mention Warren's vocals, which try hard to ape the sound of Bobby Gillespie. "Good on TV" offers a bit of a respite from the agony Warren puts the listener through with his dryly humorous lines, "All that we can do is sit and wait/For the money to accumulate/But it's never gonna happen to me/Because I don't look good on TV," but the song still doesn't come close to matching the first four songs.
Again, Giraffe does sound terrific (much of the credit goes to famed producer Flood), but who cares if it has good production if the songs don't measure up? This album marks Richard Warren's first foray into more conventional pop, compared to his more experimental first two albums, and he sporadically offers us glimpses of how good he can be, but not enough to sustain a 50 minute album. But at least he's trying to provide us with some quality pop music, and judging by "Automatic Eyes", he's definitely capable of something special. In the meantime, give this one a pass and buy the single instead.