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Y’know, after a month in the company of Banjo Or Freakout I was ready to throw the towel in. I’d floated through starry, firework-lit skies to ‘Move Out’ and sunken into ‘105’s obfuscated Neil Young groove, but for the most part my connection with Alessio Natalizia’s debut had been, I suppose, amiable; perpetually on the brink of some mutual understanding but limited by the wearying toll of its stultifying tendency to wander off track, leading me down half-lit forest paths whose attractions I couldn’t quite decipher, or just didn’t want to. Our time was up. 'It’s not me, Banjo old boy,' I’d grumble with a tired sigh, 'it’s you'.
Lucky I didn’t write that review, because as usual I was being a div. A couple of evenings ago it occurred to me that I should stop walking, typing, reading and watching and just listen. And once you’re no longer waiting for something immediately striking to crop up, that’s when a record like this allows you in - to attribute it a form of your choosing and to poke at its darkest crevices (not like that). Other than the obvious Big Moments, there are no real peaks or troughs here; the record journeys along a landscape which, sure, is kinda flat - in that the focus is on subtle details rather than dynamic shifts - but flat only in the context of the chorus-ridden, instant-gratification indie it might be lumped in with (Alessio’s canon boasts this excellent Wild Beasts remix, as well as re-workings of Bloc Party, Oxford-based rock quintet Radiohead and also Burial). The moment you’re in, that’s it - your ticket’s stamped and the conductor isn’t in the business of giving refunds. After you’ve stopped cursing and fretting about getting your money’s worth though, the enormity of what surrounds begins to fascinate - this almost tangible dream-world of broken sound-waves and flickering fairy-lights. Never mind about highs or lows; it‘s a privilege to even be in the place.
The penultimate song takes the album on arguably its most intriguing excursion. ‘Dear Me’ swirls with plumes of dense mist and distant synth-screech, grounded by a murky, motoric bass-line. Essentially it’s a simulated Cryptograms-era Deerhunter workout, and I’ve no truck for anyone who condemns such well-intended artistic treason. Fifty seconds in, a driving drum-beat pounds Alessio’s murmured refrain of “I couldn’t live in hope and die” into a fractured echo, until it evokes the half-remembered internal monologue of a recovering drug-addict. Not the easiest of listens, then, but a passionate case for the joys of escapism, which is worthy of its influences.
Though use of textural sound in pop music has become too widespread since the boom in bedroom recording artistry to retain any inherent value, in this case it lends the record a rare, immersive allure - in particular to songs like ‘Dear Me’, ‘Fully Enjoy’, ‘I Don’t Want to Start All Over Again’, ‘Can’t Be Mad for Nothing’ and to a slightly lesser degree the album in general, which naturally falls back on more conventional structural devices. Banjo or Freakout’s textures teeter between suffocating and implosive, overwhelming and barely-there. Sometimes they’ll wash in as a rich climax peels away, conjuring a shimmery, post-coital afterglow; others - as on the enduringly delighting ‘Move Out’ - they coalesce into an intense chorus, latching onto propulsive rhythms and generally bolshing up the consummate shebang in the foreground, like the Northern Lights looming over the apocalypse.
It’s a tad early to label Alessio 'London’s answer to Bradford Cox' (remember Turn It Up Faggot?) but the comparison at least gives some context. What lies ahead for the Italian-born Londoner remains to be seen, but five years into his career, Banjo Or Freakout finds a songwriter comfortable enough in his swirling haze of a skin-suit to harness the opposing extremities of his palette, not just over the course of an album but often within songs; ‘Can’t Be Mad for Nothing’s swarms of clicks and shuffling woodland scrapes tumble over barely coherent fragments of melody, eventually merging into something approaching chemical equilibrium. A top-heavy track-listing does the album’s more abstract curios no favours, and some will find it too much to take in in one sitting. But for me, headphones donned and lights extinguished, each submersion is every bit as worthy as the last.
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