I've been listening to Plug's "Drum & Bass for Papa" a lot lately. That disc encapsulates pretty neatly everything good about Luke Vibert's singularly facetious approach to making electronic music. By taking the traditionally hyper-serious and absolutely humorless format of drum & bass and infusing it with whimsy, Vibert succeeded in turning the genre on its ear and created a name for himself as that rarest of beasts: an electronic musician who didn't take himself so damnably serious. (He got a whole lot of nothin' for his troubles from the drum & bass world, but that's life.)
Whimsy is a double-edged sword. It's easy to create light-hearted music, but not quite so easy to infuse said whimsy with gravity. Without some dimensionality, an artist risks becoming "Weird" Al. Richard D. James is capable of some pretty humorous and borderline slapstick moments in his guise of Aphex Twin, but he also knows to leaven the weirdness with an occasional note of seriousness, be it melancholy or paranoia. Contrast creates dramatic tension, and dramatic tension keeps people interested.
So Vibert presents us with an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, Sorry I Make You Lush is as accomplished an album as you are likely to hear this year. But it skates a very fine line between irreverence and irrelevance, and emerges only partially successful. It must be said, however, that when the album works, it works really well.
Sorry I Make You Lush marks a return to the Wagon Christ alias for Vibert after a brief sojourn under his own name with last year's Yospeh, released on the Warp label. Yospeh was seen by many as a polarizing departure for Vibert, a harder project steeped in the acid sounds of early rave (albeit filtered through the prism of Vibert's skewed perspective). After Yospeh, Sorry . . . is probably a relief for his fanbase, a record more in line with 2001's Musipal.
Early tracks like "Saddic Gladdic" and "The Funnies" are classic Wagon Christ numbers, well-crafted tunes that meld the frenetic structuralism of IDM with the jaunty inventiveness native to turntable-driven artists such as Kid Koala and the Avalanches. They're a perfect example of Wagon Christ's conflicted ethos: if you like music that takes itself with a big grain of salt, you will like these tracks . . . but you might also wonder at the fragile distinctions between whimsy and kitsch.
Vibert has long been saddled with unfair comparisons to µ-ziq's Mike Paradinas, and tracks such as "I'm Singing", with its use of high-pitched synthesizer squeals as the dominant melodic line, don't go far towards making these comparisons inapt. "Shadows" uses similar noises, but also utilizes a series of more restrained and almost melancholy guitar and string samples to create a more mournful atmosphere. The synth squeaks go far towards breaking this mood, but the overall effect is still positive.
"Quadra Y Discos" almost seems to be built atop a sample of the Chemical Brothers' "Morning Lemon" (or perhaps shares some of that classic track's lineage?). The creatively spliced beat is a satisfying element in an otherwise awkwardly-constructed song. "UBFormby" seems to be built around the sample of a church organ, and the dichotomy of the cheesy organ against the more studious beat creates an interesting contrast.
The album's best track, "Sci Fi Staircase", is also the album's simplest composition. There aren't any extraneous samples or awkwardly whimsical elements, merely a engagingly funky break with a serious of continuously changing 303 melody lines building, throughout the track's seven-minutes, to a vertiginously brilliant emotive apex. It's a breathtaking reminder of how good Luke Vibert can be, when he feels like it -- creating electronic music as crystalline architecture.
But "Sci Fi Staircase" is followed by the album's title track, which is more of the same in terms of the album's predominant mood of ADD-infused sampledelica. There's your "Apache" breakbeat and your super-fast basslines and your sci-fi movie samples (did you get permission from Lucasfilm, Mr. Vibert?) It's just kind of dull. The album's final track, "Nighty Night", almost reminds me of the Propellerheads, with a very funky and crisp beat offset against an unprocessed and melodic bassline. It's a good note to finish the album on, a far more focused effort than most of the tracks which preceded it.
Ultimately, while Sorry I Make You Lush is by no means a bad album, and will certainly please Vibert's coterie of hardcore fans, it is also inconsistent and, at intervals, even dull. There's no doubt that when it comes to sheer studio virtuosity, Vibert is near the top of his class -- but as a composer, he needs to stop reading his old, dog-eared copies of Mad magazine and get some new ideas. I'd suggest he go back and listen to "Sci Fi Staircase" some more, because a full album in that vein would probably be an unquestionable masterpiece.