Iranian-born, London-based musician Leila Arab has the kind of pedigree that many contemporaries would envy: after releasing her debut album on IDM godfather Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label, she was asked by pop polymath Björk to join her touring band as a live mixer and keyboardist. Unfortunately, this auspicious beginning was halted by the death of both of Leila’s parents, with whom she formed an unusual closeness after her family fled Iran during the Islamic revolution of 1979. The resultant grief forced Arab to take an eight-year break from music.
While her first two albums (1998’s Like Weather and 2000’s Courtesy of Choice) were good, they lacked distinction, and the down-tempo trip-hop that she initially gained renown for slowly fell out of favor during her absence. Thus, when I heard that she was due to release a new album this year, my reaction fell somewhere between surprise and indifference. Fortunately, Blood, Looms and Blooms is a solid comeback that updates Leila’s sound just enough to avoid anachronism.
Opener “Mollie” beats M83’s Anthony Gonzalez at his own game: on it, Leila layers thickly distorted keyboards and pitch-imperfect swells of sound that recall MBV leader Kevin Shields’ “glide guitars” atop crunchy 8-bit beats. She carefully pushes elements in and out of the mix for dramatic effect. Halfway through, the beats and keyboards sharply increase in volume and graininess, ushering the song into a fearsome climax. Lead single “Mettle” also boasts MBV-aping guitars and sudden dynamic changes, though on a smaller scale; on it, the crunchy beats are replaced by samples of dripping water.
On many songs, Leila displays a knack for taking simple elements and tweaking them to playful and otherworldly effect. On “Little Acorns”, classic hip-hop break-beats are chopped up in order to remove their familiarity; whereas most producers would hire an MC to lace the track with customary menace, she instead gets two children to do a charmingly awkward attempt at Jamaican “toasting”. If “Mango Down Pickle River” is your favorite song from M.I.A.’s Kala (it certainly is mine), you’ll love “Little Acorns”. On the astonishing “Teases Me”, Leila runs every instrument except for the cymbals and Luca Santucci’s voice through a low-pass filter, which makes the song sound as if it’s being performed underwater. The tinny preset drum machines on “The Exotics” are run through enough delay to make the rhythms stutter and fade at Leila’s will. The swooping keyboards on “Lush Dolphins” help the song live up to its name.
The best testaments to Leila’s compositional ability may be the songs that feature guest vocalists. Her two collaborations with Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird are better than anything Tricky or Martina have done in the last decade. The blaring guitars and distorted bass lines of “Deflect” recall Tricky’s heavy-metal remake of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, but Martina sounds more engaged with the material this time around. “Why Should I?,” which closes the album, is a sweetly apocalyptic duet between Martina and Specials front man Terry Hall. On “Daisies, Cats and Spaceman,” Leila hands the microphone to her Martina-aping sister Roya, with no less magical results. The maelstrom of chopped-up dulcimer, music box, and trumpet samples that interrupts Roya halfway through must be heard to be believed!
While no song Blood, Looms and Blooms could be considered innovative, almost every song is excellent, which is no small feat. If her opening DJ sets at Björk’s recent British live shows — which found her mixing spoken-word records with digitally-processed noise to a booing audience — are any indication, she has inherited some of Aphex Twin’s contrariness. I’m sure that if Leila decides to stick around, this contrariness will find its way into future recordings. I, for one, can’t wait!