Like many British bands, South garnered rabid press in UK mags before their full-length debut was even recorded. On the strength of several 7" releases and an EP under the mentoring of Mo'Wax founder and U.N.K.L.E. member James Lavelle, South quickly established themselves as a band to watch. 2001's From Here on In delivered on that promise, placing the band alongside contemporaries like Doves, Coldplay, and Elbow -- even if their blend of soaring melodies, dance floor beats, electronic bloops, and ringing guitars did overstay its welcome a bit by record's end.
From the first beats of "Motiveless Crime", you can tell that With the Tides is a more straight-ahead effort than South's previous efforts. Dave Eringa (Ash, Idlewild, Manic Street Preachers) replaces Lavelle in the producer's seat, and South's sound bears far less turntable embellishment than before. "Motiveless Crime" barrels ahead on ramshackle drum beat and epic strings, followed by the driving guitars of an anthemic "Colours in Waves". Song after song, South get to the point and use scratches, blips, and DJ tricks sparingly, often keeping them so far in the background that they're almost subliminal. "Fragile Day" walks in and leaves again on an ominous organ tone that would do Radiohead proud, but in between, South work their way to a driving, electric climax the old fashioned way -- with varied instrumentation.
The songs are also slightly shorter on With the Tides than on From Here on In, which is a plus. Despite South's obvious talent, From Here on In's admirable ambition and scope resulted in a diffuse record. By limiting themselves here, South force themselves into an economy of style that veers away from swirly meanderings à la Blur or the Verve. Ominous swirls lurk in the background of "Loosen Your Hold", for example, but in the end it's all about a nimble acoustic guitar melody, direct strings, and insistent banjo. "Nine Lives" (one of the disc's highlights) limits itself mainly to inventive vocal phrasing and a fragile melody. Perhaps just to show they haven't completely lost their stripes, though, South close the album with the aptly named "Threadbare", which features distorted, distant vocals and sonic interference swirling around ferocious guitar breaks.
If anything, this turn of events puts them more firmly in Coldplay territory, but South is still much more arch than that. Despite the stripped-down approach (and it's really hard to call it "stripped-down"; South have merely found a more traditional way of achieving much the same effect as before), they still exist not far from Radiohead's shadow. The sense of dynamics on With the Tides sounds almost like the missing link between Pablo Honey and The Bends, when Yorke and company crawled into some musical cocoon and seemed to spring fully formed as a much more complex creature.
Strangely, though, the overall effect of With the Tides is very ethereal and fleeting. This record contains some truly great songs, but it takes a lot of listens to make them stick. It's very strange that you can hear a song like "Nine Lives" or "Silver Sun" and think to yourself, "this is a fantastic song!" -- and then find yourself unable to remember anything but the briefest part of the chorus, intro, or melody. Maybe time will make the difference in that respect; maybe With the Tides is an album that slowly seeps in so that you find yourself absent-mindedly humming the bass line to "Mend These Trends" in the grocery store. It's worth the time it will take to find out; With the Tides is so pleasurable a listen while you're listening to it that it deserves a chance at staying power.