It takes more than great production to create compelling music: there's a spark missing from Lavelle's songwriting
I can't help but feel a little bit of sympathy for James Lavelle. This is the man who founded the legendary Mo'Wax label, after all; this is the very same Mo'Wax that gave the world DJ Shadow's Endtroducing.... That alone probably ensures him a place in the pantheon of pop music immortals. But he's also responsible for a handful of the last decade's better mix CDs -- including the very first release in the Fabric Live series, as well as a pair of stand-out discs for Global Underground. All told, Lavelle is someone who has built himself a pretty respectable career to date. Nothing to shrug off, in any event.
The problem, in a word, is UNKLE. Not that UNKLE is exactly what you might call a vanity project, or even a typical rich producer "side" project. It's got a good pedigree; in fact, it's got a great pedigree. The first UNKLE album, 1998's Pysence Fiction (almost ten years! Wow I feel old now) was greeted with almost universal acclaim, but at the time Lavelle was not considered in any way central to the project's success. That is because the other half of UNKLE at the time was none other than the aforementioned DJ Shadow. Pysence Fiction was regarded by many as the de facto follow-up to Endtroducing..., in part because it took Shadow a good six years to create a proper follow-up (2002's similarly excellent The Private Press), and in part because, as I said, it was a very good album. It was hard not to attribute the good things about UNKLE to Shadow's presence, especially given Lavelle's (at the time) conspicuous anonymity.
But then DJ Shadow decided not to do any more UNKLE. There is where most people would have given up, at least on using the UNKLE name: too much baggage. You have to figure that Lavelle knew what he was getting himself into. He's not stupid. Every single review of an UNKLE album since Pysence Fiction has mentioned Shadow at some point -- his proverbial shadow stretches across UNKLE's corpus like a latter-day Harry Lime. (Not often mentioned is the fact that UNKLE was actually co-founded by Tim Goldsworthy, who later went on to be one-half of DFA production team, with LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. Another set of big shoes.) Sure enough, 2003's Never, Never, Land met with a polite, if restrained reception, and polite, if unremarkable reviews. What people liked about the album was favorably compared with Shadow, and what people didn't like was dismissed as second-rate Shadow. That album's more club-oriented and atmospheric direction pointed towards a general tunelessness that all the moody build-ups and well-executed vamps couldn't hide.
So, here we all at album number three. And while I cannot say this is a bad album, I am left with the unmistakable conclusion that it is an unremarkable album. As with previous albums, the thing is crawling with celebrity guests of the highest caliber -- Joshe Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), 3D (Massive Attack) and Ian Astbury (The Cult) all appear, as do newcomers Gavin Clark (Clayhill) and the Duke Spirit. The mood is surprisingly rock-oriented, and it kicks into gear immediately with the garage-y "Chemistry", a pretty fine scorcher that could easily have wandered in off the latest Queens album. A strong beginning.
But problems arise on the next track, "Hold My Hand", with vocals from Lavelle himself. There's a specific malady that seems to affect electronic dudes when they try to go rock -- that is, they get sucked into considerations of groove and texture above, well, rocking out. These definitely have their place, but when applied to a rock tempo the results can seem monotonous, if not simply undercooked. It sounds great on paper, but it just sort of sits there, kind of like a Velvet Revolver track without the history of drug abuse. Homme shows up on the next track, "Restless", and imparts a definite spark of energy with his trademark croon. The result is somewhere between high-desert stoner rock and big-beat stomp.
The rest of the album falls into this pattern: the grooves are only as strong as Lavelle's celebrity guests. Gavin Clark offers up some journeyman work on the surprisingly Collective Soul-esque "Keys to the Kingdom", but redeems himself on the sprightly ballad "Broken". Autolux's "Persons & Machinery" seems to operate on fits and starts, coming alive briefly at the choruses but dragged down by the structure of off-kilter verses. Lavelle's own vocals reappear on the tepid "Morning Race" and "Price You Pay", but the highlight of his performance is undoubtedly "Lawless", which -- at only two and a half minutes -- manages not to outstay it's welcome. This is important considering the many tracks that meander on past the five- and six-minute marks for no justifiable reason.
Ian Astbury provides the album's high points, the jittery, insistent "Burn My Shadow" (hah! That Lavelle, such a kidder) and the positively sepulchral "When Things Explode". The latter offer's this album's closest approximation of "Rabbit in Your Headlights", Psyence Fiction's unforgettable (albeit incredibly depressing) Thom Yorke vehicle. I have to admit I was quite surprised by Astbury's performance here -- not that the man can't sing, just that he hasn't sang anything this compelling in quite a while. He sounds like someone trying to make up for lost time.
As you have probably surmised, the album as a whole is something of a grab-bag. One track can be great, the next stunningly mediocre. The production is crisp and distinctive throughout -- but we would expect nothing else from UNKLE. It takes more than great production, however, to create compelling music: otherwise, BT would be the greatest musician of all time. There's a spark missing from Lavelle's songwriting that seems to need outside influence in order to fan into greater flames. Ironically for someone who's spent almost a decade trying to emerge under the figurative Shadow of his most famous partner, Lavelle is still at his best when relying on someone else's instincts to guide his considerable talent.