Long hailed and praised in its native England for a cacophony of ambient sounds and straightforward rock pop, the youthful trio of South has been busy creating a small yet exciting buzz on this side of the big pond. Although still in their early twenties, Joel Cadbury, Brett Shaw and Jamie MacDonald have been together for close to a decade, producing high-brow pop music on anything but high-tech equipment. After creating a series of singles and EPs released exclusively on vinyl from a basement four-track recorder, the group collaborated with UNKLE on the soundtrack for Sexy Beast during recording From Here on In. And judging by the sound, it certainly appears to have been a blessing in disguise. Between lush orchestral instrumentals, the group manages the sonic tightrope between Americana roots and urban backbeats over some 70 minutes.
Although there are some initial moments where the listener is trying to pigeonhole the sound, the three parts of "Broken Head" serve as the perfect example of South's performance. Sprinkled throughout the album rather evenly, the songs offer a return to an almost acoustic ambience, which suits them perfectly. The group always veers from the projected course, which is refreshing from song to song. "Paint the Silence" may evoke images of the Verve or Embrace but perhaps most a youthful Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown getting his feet wet. It's orchestrated pop at its finest, but it's not indicative of the path chosen for the remaining 15 songs.
Nor is the route taken one of cornfields, mom and pop stores or front porch Americana, although you'd be hard pressed to argue with "I Know What You're Like". Appearing as if a polished outtake from the Black Crowes Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, this reflective and contemplative tune is an early gem. "Keep Close" is also along the alt.country lines, with some cute slide guitar hanging over the chorus. Listening to the song, you get the feeling the album wasn't a series of concepts but a matter of what felt right on that given day. But that sense of purpose doesn't hit paydirt until the album's shining moment.
Starting off as possible filler material, "Sight of Me" is by far the most experimental song with the greatest risks taken and thus the greatest rewards. An off-kilter tempo and jazzy arrangements is hard to step into, but the song's bridge is truly ingenious. Moving from Beatles pop, which evolves into a reggae or dub reggae vibe is instantly attractive. From this beat, MacDonald and Cadbury up the ante, adding witty basslines and guitars for an extremely funky 4/4 time closing. It also signals a dichotomy or sonic fork in the road, as the album's remainder is more textured, synthesized and urbane.
The second half of the album is mired in good ideas gone awry, or several stalled attempts at the same concept of mixing the acoustic-oriented with trip-hop and hip-hop beats. Some of the songs seem spliced together, particularly "All in for Nothing" and "Southern Climbs". The formula in both is somewhat tedious and redundant, giving the listener a sense of space and time, but both culminate with a small instrumental piece leading nowhere. "All in for Nothing" is perhaps the worst track, sounding as if it's the band's rebuttal to the Manic Street Preachers' "Miss Europa Disco Dancer", a horrid mistake in the first place. But there are assets here also, such as "Recovered Now" and "Live Between the Lines (Back Again)".
A couple of pop rock songs would fit better closer to the album's conclusion, particularly "Here on In" and the Oasis-like whine of "Run on Time", which strays into instrumental doodling near its otherwise energetic conclusion. Fittingly, "Broken Head III" closes the album, evoking mental images of a film's end credits. Regardless of the slight inconsistencies, the band has certainly nothing to be ashamed of, for this album is engaging and challenging in the best way possible. It's just a matter of seeing what happens From Here on In.