Ever since their 1997 debut, Manchester duo Lamb have been enthralling listeners with their inventive take on drum 'n' bass and trip hop, combining the programming wizardry of Andy Barlow with the intoxicating vocals of chanteuse Louise Rhodes. Their self-titled debut album followed the example set by such electronic auteurs as Portishead and Tricky, with its dark, downtempo mood, but it was the distinctive, fragile, haunting voice of Rhodes and the sweeping production of Barlow, best exemplified by the single "Gorecki", that set the pair apart from everyone else. 1999's Fear of Fours continued the evolution, as Barlow got adventurous, pushing the boundaries of drum 'n' bass ("Little Things"), while adding sublime touches of chamber music and more understated beats on other tracks. 2001's What Sound (re-released last year as the extended What Sound Deluxe) polarized fans with its slightly more mainstream approach, but it was a fine step forward, as it deftly walks the fine line between electronic inventiveness and accessible pop, bolstered by the stunning pair of songs, "Heaven", and "Gabriel". Who knew where Lamb would be headed on their next album, but whatever direction they chose, it was guaranteed to make for a fascinating listen.
Lamb's newest release, Between Darkness and Wonder, continues their steady move towards more mainstream fare, but in their own inimitable way, they alternate from sunny, optimistic tunes, to much darker, intensely brooding moments. That said, this album is the most focused of Lamb's decade-long career. Gone are the high-profile guest musicians (Spearhead's Michael Franti and bass stalwart Me'Shell NdegeOcello both played supporting roles on What Sound), as it's strictly a group effort this time around. Recorded in a rural setting, it has a warm, pastoral feel, but like a windy, cloudy day in the summer, warm light envelops, and cool shadows pass by. The result is music that is sometimes life-affirming, sometimes unsettling, but always a thing of great beauty.
That dark, yet optimistic mood is set instantly on "Darkness". "I am beyond recognition/ Gone to some small space in silent stillness," muses Rhodes over Barlow's blend of ambient tones and frenetic beats and loops, "Though something beats anew." It's an odd way to start an album off, but a promising one, as well. Like "Gabriel" on What Sound, "Stronger" is a much more simply constructed song, as both Rhodes and Barlow take a more subtle approach, aided by a lightly funky middle section and a simple, yet sumptuous string arrangement by David Campbell. "Till the Clouds Clear" is a real standout; opening with a simple, lilting acoustic guitar lick which sounds optimistic at first, Rhodes and Barlow then turn the song upside down in the chorus, which builds and builds like a storm, Barlow's whooshing tones drowning out the guitar, and Rhodes howling over the din like someone screaming into the wind, "What you gonna do/When the storm takes over?" The plaintive "Please" comes perilously close to Dido territory, but is saved by Barlow's production, which gives it enough of an enigmatic twist to keep things from getting too syrupy.
It's the more sunny, optimistic side of Between Darkness and Wonder that ultimately wins you over. "Wonder" is so unabashed in its hopefulness, it's jarring at first, as Rhodes ponders the existence of a higher power, gently singing, "Don't know if God exists/ But there's some magic out there." The song comes close to equaling the beauty of "Heaven", with its light-as-a-feather chorus, more strings by Campbell, and Rhodes's conclusion that, "Heaven's not up there, but on earth below." "Sugar 5" boasts a great bassline, not to mention some of the record's boldest beats by Barlow, while the utterly buoyant "Sun" is the album's one straight-up dance track, one of the most whimsical, upbeat songs the duo have ever written. "Open Up" combines a swaying beat, a wonderfully dreamy chorus of "la da da"'s, and some more blatantly rose-colored sentiments from Rhodes ("Open up and see all fear and hatred gone"). Unlike other instrumentals on past releases, where Barlow flexed his programming muscles, "Angelica" is much more controlled, in keeping with the rest of the new album, as its piano-driven melody and majestic rhythmic pulses evoke thoughts of both Debussy and Moby at the same time.
The album comes to a gorgeous conclusion on "Hearts and Flowers", as Rhodes points out that love is more rewarding when couples go through rough moments, as she sings, "Those people that make up valentines/ Forget the flesh and blood of love/ Like yours and mine." Here, like life, the dark and light coexist, each proving to be just as essential as the other, and on Between Darkness and Wonder, Lamb take those two disparate moods and blend them especially well.