Best Kept Secrets chronicles Lamb's subtle transformation from rough-and-tumble trip-hop into smooth and subtle futuristic pop.
I make no bones about the fact that I am now and have always been a fan of Lamb. The fact that there are not more of us is depressing. Few people in the States seem to know they exist. Those of us who do know waited patiently for Mercury to release 2002's What Sound, only to see the album released eight months later by indie über-label Koch. Now, they're hardly the only group to have been dropped from a major label in the past five years but the fact is that they should be huge, and they're not, and stuff like Norah Jones sells millions of copies. Life is unfair, I know, I should just get over it.
In their native UK as well, the group is often unfairly dismissed -- placed into the same disposable carton as Morcheeba, Hooverphonic, and all the rest of the faux-Bristollian Portishead-come-latelys. Unfortunately, it's an easy comparison, and perhaps there's even a bit of truth to it as well. But Lamb have never been and are probably never going to be one of those groups with an amazing clutch of hipster cred attached to their name.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably say that Lamb's Fear of Fours was the first album I bought after I met the woman who would become my wife. As such, there's something about their sound that I will always associate with the feverish, unbearably intense, and intricately melancholic rush of true love. It may sound corny, but the fact remains: there's something unabashedly romantic about the music they make. Perhaps these are merely my individual associations. But the fact remains that if you don't have heartstrings that can be tugged by well-orchestrated melancholic pop music, you should probably just quit reading this review and go see what Fear Factory are up to.
Best Kept Secrets chronicles Lamb's subtle transformation from rough-and-tumble trip-hop into smooth and subtle futuristic pop. As a programmer, Andy Barlow has grown from someone deeply indebted to mid-period Massive Attack to an influence in his own right, effortlessly blending a myriad of different musical genres to create Lamb's hybrid sound. Vocalist Louise Rhodes has grown as well, from a plaintive ingenue to an expertly mannered jazz influenced pop siren.
The album's 16 tracks, assembled in strict chronological order, trace a clear pathway through the duo's history. "Cotton Wool", perhaps their most famous track, is still a potent piece of work eight years on. Here we see the roots of the juxtaposition that would serve them well throughout their career. A harsh and chaotic melange of tumbling percussion -- like the sound of a sack of alarm clocks being thrown down a flight of stairs -- forms the backbone of the track. The sinister orchestral flourishes and the spare plucking of an upright bass serve as the menacing counterpoint to Rhodes's affectingly romantic pleading.
They've never been afraid to overwhelm the listener, and all four tracks included from 1996's self-title debut reflect that tendency. "Gorecki" piles on the elements until the track practically buckles from the weight. From the pulsating breakbeat to the light bongo drumming to what sounds like a giant orchestra all playing at once and trying very hard to pummel the listener -- somehow, magically, it doesn't manage to overwhelm the honest emotion in Rhodes' voice.
1999's Fear of Fours represented a step away from the (ahem) massive sounds of their debut and a step in the direction of a more measuredly majestic jazz-inflected sound. The hybridization of trip-hop acid jazz was never better realized than on this underrated masterpiece.
"Little Things" and "B-Line" are steps in a more disciplined direction from their theatrical debut. Instead of dark and sprawling, the mood is tight and upbeat, reflecting the duo's increasingly confident songwriting chops. "Lullaby" presents Rhodes's voice almost solely supported by the omnipresent upright bass in addition to a full orchestra, showcasing Barlow's skills as an arranger in addition to his obvious programming talent.
The last track included off Fear of Fours, "Bonfire", is also quite possibly their very best track. Nothing on this compilation better showcases the majestic, pulsating melancholia of their arrangements in perfect accord with Rhodes's powerfully emotive voice. In the mere space of two albums and three years time, Barlow and Rhodes had already attained the type of heady pop mastery that most artists never achieve.
2002's What Sound represented another step forward for Lamb, further away from the harsh drum and bass of their debut, and this time in the direction of a more straight-forward electronic style. It's a far more intimate album, as it lacks the jazz and orchestral elements that made Fear of Fours so devastatingly powerful, but they gain a degree of authority from the slight retrenchment. Tracks such as "Heaven" and "One" showcase a more pointedly modern sound, and an increasingly combative one as well. Rhodes's voice sounded as poignant as ever, but Barlow bared some teeth here, as on "One"'s extended faux-psychedelic instrumental outro.
Of course, that's not to say that they were any less dramatic when the situation called for it -- "Gabriel" was as melodramatic a song as the duo had ever done, if a bit overcooked. The liner notes indicate that it's also very popular at weddings, for what it's worth.
2003's Between Darkness and Wonder didn't really mark a departure for Lamb. The album was definitely in the same vein as the previous year's What Sound, with only a slightly increased focus on acoustic instrumentation to denote a passage in time. (Between Darkness and Wonder also features additional names attached to the songwriting credits, a sign of the increased influence of their touring and studio band.) "'Til the Clouds Clear" is a surprisingly ferocious track, building from the sound of a lone acoustic guitar playing to an almost overwhelmingly intense chorus. "Wonder" is a syrupy-sweet mid-tempo track that reminds me of a more contemplative "B-Line". It's catchy as hell, but I can definitely understand why Andy vacillates between liking and loathing it.
This is a good album, and I can certainly think of worse places to start if you've never heard Lamb before. But I should also say that the singles format hardly showcases them to their best -- there's not a single track on here that would pass muster as a Top 40 hit. The fact that they are both subtler and more unabashedly emotive than your average indie pop group definitely works in their disfavor. I don't think there's a disingenuous bone in either of their bodies, and there's something disarming about that.
Also, just in terms of packaging, I think they really missed a bet here. There's a bonus DVD with seven music videos included with the hits disc, but quite honestly I think they would have been much better represented by an additional CD of their best remixes. Videos are nice but kind of superfluous, whereas they have been extremely well-served over the years by a never ending series of famous and talented remixers such as Mr. Scruff, MJ Cole, Autechre, Wagon Christ, Photek, Red Snapper, Nellee Hooper, and, of course, Kruder & Dorfmeister. Just looking at that list makes me salivate in hopes that they might some day release a separate remix compilation. As it is, the fact that Kruder & Dorfmeister's K&D Sessions mix of "Trans-Fatty Acid" isn't included on this set is damn near reason enough to riot.
So, Lamb are an acquired taste. I can live with that. Their lyrics can be a bit cloying and I know some people have a short tolerance for acid-jazz. If you already have all four of their studio albums, there's not a lot of reason to get this, either (and if you don't like "best-of's" on principle, you should probably just get Fear of Fours). But Best Kept Secrets is a damn good excuse for anyone who hasn't already heard them to listen with an open mind and an expectant heart to one of the most talented and affecting pop groups of the last decade.