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When it comes to the art of the collaboration, nobody has been ploughing their furrow longer or harder than James Lavelle in the guise of UNKLE. Ordinarily there would be nothing wrong with this; a fresh meeting of creative minds is more often than not a positive thing. The issue with Lavelle’s 18 year project is that since the success of Psyence Fiction there have been whisperings accompanying each subsequent release, questioning whether star appearances have been chosen for the possibility of creating something aesthetically beautiful, or to help ensure something artistically worthwhile receives the most exposure and sales possible. You could argue the point that ultimately there’s nothing wrong with this; at 37, Lavelle no doubt has other more prosaic but no less significant concerns in addition to his and UNKLE’s artistic legacy.
This may be sound a little cynical, but one cannot escape the fact that post-Psyence Fiction releases have had a yoke around their neck, partly imposed by the sheer success of the record, and partly self-perpetuated by subsequent decisions around collaborators. It was interesting, then, that the last UNKLE outing, 2010’s Where Did The Night Fall arrived as an exception to the UNKLE rule; whilst guest-laden it was not weighed down with the baggage of celebrity; this coupled with some solid song-writing saw the record received as their best for a while. It’s thus even more intriguing that for an EP hot on the heels of that album’s success Lavelle has chosen to recruit an A-lister in the form of the increasingly ubiquitous, but rarely less than impressive Nick Cave. What could possible go wrong?
The EP opens well as a brooding, portentous looped sample gives way to thunderous drum breaks and a squall of guitars. All is then stripped back for the entrance of Cave’s archetypal sneering roar, the vocal treated with a slight delay that only serves to add to its gravitas. He’s soon on full-rant, talking of “backward goons” and “the Jigsaw Man”, although expectations, running high, are short lived; all too quickly it becomes evident that this is no match for Bad Seeds or Grinderman material. The melody dustbin has been scraped dry save an angular and discordant guitar line, whilst lyrically things descend into cliché, a rarity for an artist of Cave’s calibre.
Next to step up to the mic is Leila Moss, of Duke Spirit and, more recently, Alexander McQueen fame. It’s an accomplished vocal again undercut by some pedestrian lyrics; any artist aspiring to create something beyond the merely everyday should surely be avoiding a refrain that consists of a repetition of the line “Will I ever get back”. Despite this the song is the highlight of the EP; haunting, pulsating and melodically memorable. The record is then split by an unremarkable, swirling instrumental soundscape, before a track from long-time collaborator Gavin Clark, and finally Sleepy Sun’s Rachel Fannan, both of which pale in comparison to the quality of the initial collaborations. Despite their relative inferiority it would be churlish not to mention the quality of production throughout the EP which is rich, layered and accomplished, something you would expect from a man of Lavelle’s experience. That’s not to say the record is a turd polished, or rolled in glitter, but rather an indication of collaborative possibilities unfulfilled.
There is a tendency to feel that UNKLE are an outfit trading on past glories, garnering critical and public attention as a result of their collaborators rather than artistic merit. It’s an accusation fuelled by the announcement accompanying the release of the EP that an extended version of Where Did The Night Fall is also being released, complete with new tracks, later in April. A limited edition gold box set will be available, to sit alongside last year’s silver edition. Someone needs to give Strangeways another spin.
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