About Group have the sort of mixed bag line-up that could almost only exist as a side-project and won't be called a 'super-group' any time soon. They comprise Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor, sometime Spiritualized guitarist John Coxon, keys and electronics journeyman Pat Thomas and, their most senior member, Charles Hayward, drummer in experimental post-punkers This Heat. Other than a general propensity towards tuneful experimentation it isn't the sort of line-up that in itself offers up any specific clues as to the musical fruits of their collaboration, but the relaxed (although never soporific) pseudo-improvisations on Start and Complete share a cohesive sonic vocabulary and exactly the sort of vibe you would expect of an album recorded entirely within one day and with little preparation. It's a peculiarly subdued brand of spontaneity that About Group muster and one for which pleasantness is expertly done as it is overdone.
The sound of plaintive electric piano and organs dominate the album, playing the melodies which Taylor, the primary songwriter, wrote as the basis for the whole record. Sympathetic drumming and dry toned guitar are the most common bedfellows with the odd flourish of electronic noise a reminder of Taylor's dayjob. There's nary an in-your-face melody or a particularly abrasive sound to be found, the odd classic rock guitar crunch aside. Most tracks have a vaguely jazzy feel, nowhere more so than on the extended jam of Terry Riley cover 'You're No Good', but there are moments where this improvised playing merely indulges the jam-band clichés; see the drumming pauses, organ fills and guitar licks of the latter section of the aforementioned song. To their credit, however, it remains an interesting take on the tape-loop experimentations of the original, particularly the dissonant layer of organ which relocates the eerie static of the original's intro to the end of the song. Not to mention the fact that Alexis Taylor totally owns the soul-pop core of the song, assimilating the two original vocal parts into one.
However, it's Taylor's own melodic prowess that shines brightest throughout. Musically the gorgeous 'Don't Worry' is probably not a million miles away from Rod Stewart's swaggering ballads, but Alexis Taylor's gently reassuring vocals certainly are and the wah-wah guitar noodling, which would otherwise border on tasteless is somehow tempered by the languorous feel. Likewise, following track 'With Each New Day' transcends the clumsy guitar twiddling by virtue of a gorgeous almost imperceptible swell (perhaps more of a blush) throughout the entire song, from the submerged tremor of the spare guitar strums to Charles Hayward's subtle drumming variations culminating in flurries of hi-hat. If it's possible to tenderly drill a snare drum Hayward achieves it on 'Perspective', the nuanced playing all the more appreciable thanks to the raw, but clean, production. The song itself is another electric piano and organ heavy bit of sappiness, which actually sounds like it resolves itself in the following the track, the very brief and focussed uplift of 'There's A Way To End This Run Of Doubt'.
The downside to About Group's approach to recording Start and Complete is their over-reliance on a few specific sounds. The record's cohesion of style and mood becomes a drawback over an album's length. While no parts were set in stone before recording, it sounds like the musicians' different instruments/roles were rather strictly adhered to. While About Group are never less than tuneful, too many of the songs feature plaintive melodies played on electric piano and organ, which unsurprisingly starts to weary. Where the melodies are occasionally less memorable or affecting there's a tendency compensate with incongruous sounds, like the crude organ undermining 'Dreamt I Saw You Late Last Night'. The eccentric organ trills of 'Repair Man' are its only distinguishing feature, but on the other hand 'Sinking Song' stands out stylistically with its appropriately rippling organs and submerged pounding toms, but lacks the melodic chops. If the album is listened to in sequence the title-track (12 of 14) is just a paler version of earlier tracks with tokenistic off-key piano. Thankfully, 'Rough and Smooth' is both remarkably intimate, just Taylor's vocals and simple organ for it first half, and also possessed of a restrained, but spontaneous, extravagance provided by unexpected runs up and down the piano. It's goes a little way to redressing the front-loading.
It's easy to wonder whether Start and Complete might have felt closer to the latter word of the title if more time had been spent on collaborative writing and recording, but conversely that may have just sacrificed the casual and relaxed spontaneity which is About Group's greatest charm, while also diluting Taylor's songwriting. Essential only for Alexis Taylor's fanbase? Yes, but an intriguing and easily loveable record for many more.
6Neil Ashman's Score