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irst off, a disclaimer. See, a long time ago I went to film school. That's not the disclaimer, but stay with me. Didn't last; wasn't my bag. Anyway, y'know how they put out soundtracks to every movie, even the ones that don't have any songs, just an original score? Ever wonder who buys those things? The geeks I went to film school with, that's who. Seriously, I would go over to somebody's dorm room to hang out, check out their CD shelf and see shit like the Meet Joe Black soundtrack. No lie. One of the many tiny details that led to my realisation that film school wasn't for me. I mean, you're just not supposed to listen to that stuff on its own, right? I gotta figure even the composer would tell you that.
So, yeah, the point. The new Lemon Jelly album has a companion DVD with an animated video for each track, but I haven't seen it. Does this make me unqualified to write this review? If you think so, stop reading here. Because I don't believe it does. For one thing, I'm assuming they made the music first, then added the videos later, so it's not like this is the score to a bunch of short films. For another, the album is also available as just a CD or LP, so they clearly intend that the music be strong enough to stand on its own. As such, I am basing this review on the music alone.
OK, the preliminaries. They're a duo, they're from the U.K., one of them is a graphic designer by trade so they have really rad album art. This is their second full-length, not counting an early singles collection. Also, their name blows. Everybody mentions that, I know, but that's because it's so egregious. It's almost redeemed, however, by the fact that their website is at www.lemonjelly.ky, which is pretty damn funny. I wonder whose top-level domain that is. Kyrgyzstan's, I suppose?
We open with a brief vocal sample of a man trying to remember a year. "It was 19..." he trails off, and the album begins. Each song is titled after a particular year (can you guess the range?), the conceit being that that's when all the records came out whence they nicked the samples for that track. Kind of a cool idea.
But not so well executed. While their sounds are pleasant enough, where Lemon Jelly fall short most often is in their unimaginative arrangements. Most of the songs start out with a simple synth or bass sample, followed by a relaxing breakbeat. Then more samples are gradually layered over one another until the track is humming along at maximum density. And then it keeps going for a while. And then it stops. And that's pretty much it. A few of the songs have a break about two thirds of the way through at which most of the sounds drop out, leaving just a bass or synth line, before everything kicks predictably back in, but it's nothing to get excited about.
The vocal samples, most of which consist of the title repeated ad nauseum, do little to relieve the monotony. And many of the samples have a loungy vibe, adding to the general atmosphere of aural wallpaper. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, but Lemon Jelly's music seems stuck in a place where it's too busy for background, not interesting enough for foreground. A few decent ideas grabbed my attention, like the odd vocal harmonies on "Slow Train," but they mostly served to remind me what the rest of the songs lacked.
Until the last song, titled either "'68" or "Go." It starts quietly, like most of the other ones. Then a man's voice begins describing some sort of arduous journey, his voice rising with excitement as the beats and string samples build the tension behind him. Could this be... an actual arrangement? The music drops out as usual, but this time an organ, quietly playing a shifting minor-key figure, keeps the mood intact while stirring anticipation for the next surprise. After a minute of this the voice says, "a moment later...", and all hell breaks loose: booming drums, raging guitars playing a killer eight-bar descending aeolian-mode progression; in short, a perfect climax to the song's expertly crafted atmosphere. Brilliant.
And so, now that Lemon Jelly have successfully demonstrated that they do, in fact, know exactly how to construct a song with a beginning, middle and end, what next? Zip. The album is over. What a tease.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2005-02-07
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