hat's a duo to do after pioneering cut 'n paste remixes, independent record label direction, VJ-software design, and political art activity? For the progressive production/DJ group Coldcut, writing and recording another album seems an underwhelming and almost regressive response. Nevertheless, Jonathan More and Matt Black re-enter the "traditional" recording arena nearly seven years after their last full-length release with Sound Mirrors. A characteristic journey through popular music's myriad conceptions of the beat, the album is a sensible addition to the group's far-reaching oeuvre. However, in the past the group's trademark collage aesthetic meant songs that refused to sit still within any one genre, preferring to suck in sounds like a Sarlac sandpit monster. Now, with the mainstreaming of the term "mash-up," the group's work seems to fall into neat categories. Sound Mirrors remains true to the group's kitchen sink approach, although individual pieces often sound too familiar.
Considerable fault can be traced to the record's collaborative approach. Now more than ever, there is a need for continuity of contributions in order to make a sensible whole. Lead single "Everything is Under Control" punches and explodes with perfect power, but perhaps better belongs on the Blues Explosion's last record Damage as Jon Spencer’s punctuations, guitar abominations, and a Chuck D-channeling Mike Ladd battle for b-side supremacy. Similarly, "Walk a Mile" looks back to the Wild Bunch days to hook peer Robert Owens with that ol' drum programming/mourning orchestra combo, while "Whistle and a Prayer" finds great parallels between the loopy melancholy of Fog and Coldcut's curious beat-skipping. While each artist (or combination of artists) sound at home on their respective tracks, the continuity of the album suffers for it. SM sounds less like a Coldcut effort than a series of Coldcut productions for other folks' records.
That said, the production quality remains fantastic. Roots Manuva checks in to toast over the raga dancehall infusion "True Skool," gelling jump-up chants seamlessly with one of Coldcut's most certifiable pop-party confections; if Roots Manuva had such bass supremacy each time out, he would certainly have a larger name stateside. Better still is the group's steadfast commitment to chaos, which receives a choice makeover at select moments. Album closer "Colours the Soul" seamlessly blends live acoustic bass performance, super fuzzy vocals from Dom Spitzer, and synthetic orchestral arrangement, conjuring both images of epic nature scenes in IMAX and intimate recording sessions on an infinite beach. Similarly, the title cut creaks with age and speaks with youth, an Indiana Jones adventure for a DJ's Holy Grail. Unfortunately, the group also revisits forgettable sounds on occasion, such as on "Just for the Kick" which features clichéd techno-synth stutters over a skinned two-step track. For the most part though, Coldcut maintains their ability to conjure multiple planes, times, and record collections at any given moment, sending the listener through wormholes of music.
However, this discussion must return to the group's standards. With an increasingly expansive vision and noteworthy reputation outside of the myopic music industry, a traditional album seems a quaint idea for Coldcut. While SM triumphs in terms of technical merits and listening ease, it does little to further the group's reputation or to expand the depth of their recorded work. In fact, its lack of focus often mutes its attempts to strike hard. For example, while the presence of Saul Williams and Amiri Baraka is notable independently, they are wallpaper here on SM. In other words, Coldcut does little to push their voice or the voices of their collaborators.
Perhaps this is a necessary step. With an expanding choice of approaches, a return to basics seems natural; More and Black are musicians, first and foremost. And should the group choose to focus on recorded works again, consider the record a pre-season warm-up. On the other hand, should Coldcut choose another path, consider the record a reminder of a retiree's potency.
Reviewed by: Dan Nishimoto
Reviewed on: 2006-02-01