Canadian laptop whiz Dan Snaith is tired of "all this lazy, complacent, shitty electronic music" that has surfaced in recent years. This, coming from a guy who specializes in the cut-and-paste musical form otherwise known as IDM, or laptop, usually one of the coldest, soulless musical genres out there. Laptop artists like The Notwist and Four Tet's Kieran Hebden, though, excel at creating off-kilter, oddly beautiful sonic collages, but the genre really hasn't had the big breakthrough it needs, an album that would explode out of the artificial confines if its narrow pigeonhole and transcend all labels entirely. Well, that masterpiece is here, and it took a 24-year-old, London-based, Canadian math student from Dundas, Ontario to do it.
Electronic music has had its share of great moments recently, but very few artists have managed to combine the precision and energy of the music with pure pop songwriting skill. Snaith, operating under the moniker Manitoba, abandons the conventions of laptop music on his new album Up in Flames, and plunges blindly with wide-eyed abandon in territory heretofore unexplored by his peers. He beats his buddy Hebden at his own game; with this stunning CD, he makes Radiohead look like a bunch of tuneless novices, he shows The Flaming Lips just how to combine electronic music with blissed-out pop in a way that would make Wayne Coyne envious, and above all else, he creates some of the most euphoric, mind-blowingly beautiful music we have heard in years.
Remarkably, this album, which is so rich in texture and depth, was created on the same minimal computer set-up as his debut album, 2001's Start Breaking My Heart, with only the slightest additions of guitar, saxophone, glockenspiel, and keyboards. Despite being a largely electronic album, Up in Flames bears a remarkable similarity to My Bloody Valentine's 1991 classic Loveless; Snaith, along with his collaborator Koushik Ghosh (another budding producer from Dundas . . . what are they feeding their kids over there?), provide vocals on several tracks, but like Loveless, what exactly they're singing isn't nearly as important as the extra layer of melody the vocals provide. And like that record, Up in Flames offers up a revelatory experience every time you put it on; you always wind up hearing something new.
"I've Lived on a Dirt Road All My Life" starts off furtively, with effects-laden, Stone Roses-style vocals by Snaith (any hint of this being an obsessively-crafted opus is shattered a minute in, when you hear Snaith cough in your right speaker), as the song explodes with layers of breakbeats as the vocal harmonies swirl around your head. There's a naïve, childlike innocence that runs through songs like "Skunks", whose happy, Byrds-style guitar melody is offset by a free jazz sax solo, and "Bijoux", a song that sounds like a joyous combination of The Beach Boys' Smiley Smile and The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin. The single "Jacknuggeted" sounds like a mystical collaboration between Nick Drake and Syd Barrett, a blend of gentle folk music and acid-laced psychedelia. "Twins" comes off as a mix of The Byrds' "Eight Miles High" and Fatboy Slim, with its simple Rickenbacker guitar riff and thunderous beats.
The last 15 minutes of the album serves up a spectacular climax. "Kid You'll Move Mountains" is as uplifting as the title indicates, another trippy Stone Roses homage a la "Don't Stop", while "Crayon" has Snaith playing the happiest glockenspiel melody you can imagine as Koushik sings a dead-perfect Yo La Tengo impersonation. It's "Every Time She Turns Round It's Her Birthday", though, that steals the show. A nearly eight minute minute electronic epic that the Chemical Brothers could never match with all their gadgets, it combines every one of the album's myriad influences in one song, with a few more Beatles and Mercury Rev sounds thrown in as well, adding up to one mesmerizing piece of work. The song is an unabashed explosion of joy, the most uplifting music we've been privy to since Moby's Everything Is Wrong album in 1995.
Allen Ginsberg once wrote a line in a poem that plainly said, haiku-like, "Heaven balanced on a grassblade." I can find no more perfect way to describe this music. It's so sublime, so organic, so achingly beautiful. For such a lush album, it's surprisingly economical, with a running time of only 39 minutes, but since the album is so intoxicating, you wind up hitting the repeat button and listening to it a few more times, and before you know it, two hours have passed. Never has a laptop album sounded so gloriously human; Snaith fumbles along at times, trying any new thing that comes to mind, having fun with his music, but it's that positive energy that greatly supersedes any technical flaws there might be. Up in Flames is easily one of the best albums of 2003 so far, an unequivocal treasure.