I've been living with Slipstream's latest release, the incessantly languid Transcendental, for about a month. I've listened numerous times and the more I've listened, the more the disc has ferreted its way into my subconscious.
It is a better disc than I initially thought, one that benefits from repeated listenings, but one that still, somehow, leaves me cold.
The disc has received some solid reviews -- Mark Barton in Losing Today magazine (http://www.losingtoday.com/reviews.php?review_id=698&band_alpha=s) called it "a relaxing, meditative and above all impeccable and glowing listening experience".
I can't argue, really. There is a quietness to the disc, a subtle, ethereal quality that offers a little more with each listen. And yet, there is something about this disc that keeps me at a distance.
Maybe it's the disc's schizophrenic nature. There are about six good pop songs, with tight guitar playing and accompanying instrumentation, and then there are a number of tracks that get lost in the soundscape. Ultimately, the guitar is uninspired and the vocals are dull and unemotive. Its lyrics are clichéd, even on the best tunes, and its tempos drag. The effect overall is one of inertia or stasis rather than motion.
Basically, Transcendental lacks soul. It fails to connect on anything more than an esoteric or intellectual level. It is well thought out, but doesn't swing, doesn't engage the baser instincts like the best pop music.
But then, much of this is not pop music, not rock and roll. Some might call it electronica, but I think the term that best fits it is ambient noise.
Transcendental creates an aural landscape out of basic rock-and-roll structures, relying on guitar and drums, some synthesizer, and Mark Refoy's fragile, unearthly voice. But that aural landscape reminds me, at least, of the sanitized vistas of too much bad science fiction -- cool and metallic, but lacking energy. Sort of Alien without the sweat or 2001: A Space Odyssey without the humor.
The album opens strong enough with the acoustic "Everything and Anything", a song built around a Mark Refoy's fragile vocal, " I wish I could feel everything / I wish I touch anything / I wish I could feel everything / I just want to touch anything / To do with you", set atop a simple drum beat and repeating guitar line.
"Just You and Me" features some neat guitar work, another repeating guitar line that plays around the chord structure (I don't want to call it a solo, because it really isn't) and a short harmonica break. It is a song that most closely connects to what would seem to be Slipstream's nominal antecedents: the Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds or Friends, the Beatles' mid-period, the Velvet Underground on their third album. But the song stretches on for 5:55, far too long given that it keeps to its basic structure, never straying far enough to expand its own horizons.
These are probably the two strongest songs, its warmest, the ones that come closest to capturing what is best about mid-1960s pop and late-1980s/early-1990s indie rock. If the disc had continued in this vein, all would be well.
But instead, Slipstream offers dull repetitive bits of ambient noise like "Sophie's Blues" and "Pulsar", instrumentals that spend far too much time exploring a very narrow avenue of sound. "Tonight's the Night", for instance, borrows a little too much from the Strawbs, a keyboard-heavy progressive band from the early 1970s. "Midnight Train" also suffers from a bloated intellectualism, but manages through the harmonica's interplay with the guitar to avoid falling completely into the abyss.
Then, the band leaves behind the swollen experimentation and offers three exquisite pieces of British pop: "I Know Nothing", "Healing Hands", and "Deep in the Night". The disc's loveliest tune is "I Know Nothing", a surprisingly light piece of British pop with a tight little guitar line, while "Healing Hands" and "Deep in the Night" traffic in the catchy clichés of '60s pop.
On "Lost in Space", the band sets a Love and Rockets feel, with some solid keyboard and well-placed sound effects. But, as with much of the disc, it goes on too long without much lyrical payoff, burning up what little energy it generated in a tiresome repetition.
And then the disc completely fades into itself, offering up the kind of pretentious tedium associated with the British art-rock and prog-rock scenes of the early 1970s, closing with an overripe reading of an Edward Blunden poem that would be funny if it weren't so absurd, the sort of thing you expect from the Moody Blues and had hoped was a thing of the past. There's also a hidden track, an extended version of "Everything and Anything" that seems to run on forever, robbing the track of its energy.
Ultimately, the failed experiments are too much and overshadow the half-dozen solid pop songs that could have served as the core of a real solid album.