Jump Leads ought to be my kind of album. It's got weird sounds, funky basslines, and downtempo grooves galore. It fearlessly mixes synths, samples, and acoustic instruments. Its songs all evolve in daring and unconventional ways. So why don't I like it?
Don't get me wrong -- Jump Leads does have its moments. By far the best is its opening track "Bumblehaun", a big goofy slab of musical sunshine that promises an album far more upbeat and accessible than Jump Leads proves to be. But actually, it was "Bumblehaun" that finally gave me the clue for why the usually reliable Fila Brazilia lost me on their latest release. There's a moment early in the track, before its cheerfully simple disco riff takes over, where an organ and an acoustic guitar duel it out over the song's gentle waif of a melody, making for a preciousness I hadn't heard in pop music since -- wait. I know. The opening of "Bumblehaun" sounds like early Genesis!
Comparing one of the most durable electronica acts of the last decade to the band that gave the world Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins sounds like a stretch, I know, but once you start listening for it, you hear echoes of English prog-rock all over Jump Leads. Not that there's anything wrong with prog-rock per se -- I actually happen to think The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is one of the great rock 'n' roll albums of all time. But in the context of Fila Brazilia's dense beats and heavy basslines, it just doesn't work. There's nothing on Jump Leads that makes me want to dance, or even roll a joint and lie on the floor, which was the main attraction of much of Fila Brazilia's prior output. Instead it all just makes me want to rest my chin on my hand and mutter, "Hmm. Interesting." It's all terribly heady and English, and that finally is my biggest complaint about it.
A perfect example of this syndrome is "Spill the Beans", a mutant soul ballad that has interesting, inscrutible lyrics courtesy of vocalist Steve Edwards ("In my own mind I am over / She's got a heart like an oval"), an interesting blues sample, and some really interesting chord changes in the chorus. But is it a good song? Possibly, if it weren't trying so hard to be interesting. As it is, it goes for the guts of Al Green but settles for the artiness of Roxy Music. Steve Edwards' pedestrian vocals don't help, either. Edwards appears on four tracks on Jump Leads, and his singing style is more mannered than affecting on all of them. Only on "We Build Arks" is he not a distraction, and then it's only because his vocals are so heavily filtered and the rest of the song is so damn weird, with its herky-jerky R&B rhythm and squelchy '70s synths and basslines desperately trying to be funky and only succeeding in being British.
Not everything on Jump Leads falls short of the mark. On "Percival Quintaine", the Fila boys make good use of a drum-and-bass riff to sustain dramatic energy through a series of, well, prog-rock solos and tempo changes (tell me Steve Cobby's guitar doesn't sound like Steve Hackett here). "DNA" is a nice ambient track with some lovely oh-so-English guitar work -- granted, it's virtually a remix of Dead Can Dance's "The Snake and the Moon", but it's a well-realized remix. "Motown Coppers" and "It's a Knockout" also have their moments, but they're nothing we haven't heard from Fila Brazilia before.
"Mother Nature's Spies" almost saves the album -- it's a brilliant mix of jazzy bass and drums and a sample of Oumou Sangare's "Sabu" that adds a nice African vibe to the track, and something that sounds like a berimbau laying down the only truly funky riff on the whole disc. It's also the only other occasion besides "Bumblehaun" where Cobby and partner David McSherry stop trying to be arty long enough to let their music's inherent warmth shine through. Fila Brazilia are so good at being sunny that it's all the more exasperating when they settle for puttering around in the murkier corners of their downtempo and trip-hop inclinations, but apparently they like it down there. There's more chances to sound like Yes, I guess.
Sadly, "Mother Nature's Spies" only lasts for three minutes and 44 seconds before giving way to "The Green Green Grass of Homegrown", a nicely rough-hewn guitar ballad that is regrettably reduced to Hootie territory by Steve Edwards disposible lyrics and pseudo-soulful vocal puffery. It is, I suppose, a fitting end to a disc that seems to show Fila Brazilia growing so bored with their own musical strengths that they're more interested in burying them under a mountain of bad vocals, prog-rock guitars, and artful conceits. Their press kit claims bragging rights over the duo's longevity -- eight albums in 10 years, which is indeed an incredible output in the fickle world of electronica -- but maybe Steve Cobby and David McSherry are due for a sabbatical before their next trip to the recording studio.