The sound of Laika's new album Wherever I Am I Am What's Missing is immediately given away in the title. A line lifted from Mark Strand's much-loved 1963 poem "Keeping Things Whole", it encapsulates perfectly just where the British electronic duo want to take their music; in Strand's short, economical poem, he writes about human beings' connection to the physical world, how, despite how vast, empty and spare the world might seem to our eyes, the world is in a constant state of flux, how whenever we move, something always moves in to take our place. If man has one purpose, Strand muses, it's to simply exist, to take up space in the universe, to complete it.
Laika have always taken their own sweet time releasing their albums, and Wherever I Am I Am What's Missing is their fourth album in nine years. Fronted by producer Guy Fixsen and bewitching singer/programmer Margaret Fiedler, Laika specialize in beautiful, accessible, ambient electronic pop, but have always stayed one step ahead of the mainstream, never content to stick to the same formula, always trying to incorporate myriad sounds into their albums, be it marimba, jazz-influenced saxophone and vibraphones, organic drum sounds, wicked dub-influenced bass lines, and a host of samples that help create intoxicating moods, be they languidly sexy or downright brooding. Judging by their last couple of albums, 1997's classic Sounds of the Satellites and 2000's Good Looking Blues, and taking into consideration that it's been three and a half years since their last album, one could hardly imagine what Laika had up their sleeves. They always surprise listeners with their albums, and this new one does just that, but in a way few could have imagined.
Wherever I Am I Am What's Missing is completely streamlined, stripped down to its bare essentials. Gone is the sonic experimentation, gone is the enveloping production sound. In its place, we have music that is surprisingly minimal -- so minimal, in fact, that some might find it feels like an unfinished product. It might be a challenge for people more used to the entrancing, full sound of their earlier albums, but given the chance, this album holds up, albeit in a more understated way.
The new album has a live, group performance feel similar to Good Looking Blues, but even more so, as drummer Lou Ciccotelli paves the way with his polyrhythmic beats. The musical accompaniment now takes a backseat to Fiedler, who emerges as a full-fledged singer, her vocals now the centerpiece on all but one song. Her singing, which was primarily used for emphasis or mood on previous albums, is now strictly about the melodies, the hooks. The result is a more consistent Laika album than what we've been used to in the past, subtly veering to the middle of the road. If Good Looking Blues has a decidedly dark, nocturnal feel, then Wherever I Am I Am What's Missing sounds like the dusk: more tranquil than discomforting. You hear that instantly on the sublime trip-hop-goes-pop of "Girl without Hands", as Fiedler weaves a spell with her hushed vocals, while Ciccotelli's shuffling drumbeat, some ambient keyboards, a low-key bassline, and a small number of clicks and pops supply a simple, unobtrusive backdrop.
"Falling Down" is downright poppy, in its own ethereal way, and the syncopated beats on "Barefoot Blues" border on garage, as Fiedler gets a bit more personal with her lyric writing, singing, "I'm spending money like water / And drinking life like wine / But it's a big old bed in a lonesome house / Unhappiness all I find". Laika list Miles Davis's Bitches Brew as one of their favorite all-time albums, and where on previous albums you heard that influence with the inclusion of bass clarinet, this time around, it's the Fender Rhodes piano which shows up on songs like "Leaf by Leaf", "Dirty Bird", and "Diamonds & Stones", evoking the work of Chick Corea on Davis's seminal album. It's on "Dirty Bird" where it works best, the piano commingling with some wonderful, minimal keyboards, and Fiedler's sweet-voiced chorus of "Shame on".
Wherever I Am I Am What's Missing is a very nice album at times, but it's hardly a progression of Laika's sound, as there are moments where it sorely lacks the adventurousness they've shown in years past. The album's one saving grace is the fact that Laika know how much is too much: it's a rather consistent record from beginning to end, but with 10 songs in 42 minutes, any longer would have been too much of the same thing.
As Mark Strand wrote in the aforementioned poem, "When I walk / I part the air / and always / the air moves in / to fill the spaces / where my body's been". With this album, Laika boldly try to let the low-key music simply exist, letting the silences speak for themselves, easing the listener into the music, instead of overwhelming. That less-is-more approach works for the most part (restraint is something you don't get very often from electronic artists), and while there's nothing really wrong with the album, it just sounds a bit too safe. For some electronic pop that does take some chances, Lamb's 2001 album What Sound is a better way to go.