d Handley and Andy Turner have been making exquisitely structured and melodious post-techno Warptronica for more than a decade now, first as part of the legendary Black Dog Productions alongside Ken Downie, and latterly (since 1995) under the rather unrepresentative nomenclature of Plaid; a misnomer because few faceless pioneers of the blip and bleep have imbued their work with such colour, style, and un-workmanlike playful warmth. With 2001’s magnificent, mellifluous and fruitful Double Figure they seemed to reach a crest; the opening twenty minutes being perhaps the most enjoyable sequence on any Warp release, “Ti Bom” doing that computer jazz thing as well as anybody before or since (Freddie Hubbard, Four Tet, Cinematic Orchestra, Piano Magic et al.), and numerous other bright alleys being happily explored over the course of 19 tracks and 70 all-too-brief minutes.
Spokes though, despite being a good quarter of an hour shorter than Double Figure and having only ten tracks, feels much, much longer.
It starts promisingly enough, as the opening track (“Even Spring”) evolves from a root grown of Lucca Santucci’s wordlessly serene lullaby vocals into a kind of abstract, devotional electronic funk that wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack to a certain type of BBC Schools science programme about Super String or Chaos Theory or Red Shift or any other equally fascinating scientific phenomena or theory that would actually interest kids but which is deemed too complex or fun or important or weird for them to be taught. It even picks itself up and runs for the door in a flush of diverted, hyperactive playtime at one moment, promising much for the rest of Spokes. Unfortunately Plaid largely fail to deliver.
So what’s the problem? Spokes is a rich, luscious sounding record, immaculately produced and professionally put together, expansively minute washes and needles of sound strolling from the speakers in colourful, tumescent waves, clearly the work of master craftsmen. And yet at times its earnestness and self-conscious attempts to prove its own expertise make it seem more like the work of a surly, awkward late-adolescent…
“Upona” grows exponentially from infinitesimal plains of exquisitely saturated micro-percussion, the sound of ants dancing a slow-motion rumba through a warm puddle, but never goes anywhere interesting enough to distract or occupy beyond that. “Zeal” might feature the sound of a lone zither, but the memory of it is hazy, like a dense lecture to which, try as you might, you simply cannot pay attention. “Mary” has bells, a descending melody line and a motorway rhythm but is far too serious and restrained to really earn our affection. These obstacles, a dourness of tone, an inflated aura of importance and a lack of a jaunty, brisk and irreverent melodic spirit, crop up track after track after track, as the abiding formula of Spokes (five-minutes plus, a beat, layers of sound, dead-end) is depressingly adhered to throughout.
Last year’s P-Brane EP was a pleasurably brief and tactile follow-up to the many-hued wonder of Double Figure; Spokes isn’t.