The Cinematic Orchestra
Domino / Ninja Tune
f the Cinematic Orchestra didn’t exist, Ninja Tune would have had to invent them. The high concept blend of atmospheric live instrumentation with neato cut-and-splice DJ tricks make them something of a Ninja flagship. In only two albums and an arty soundtrack, the Orchestra has trademarked their signature texture of stewed, skiffling drums, club-sandwich horns, and a force-fed double bass, and also produced the best of Roots Manuva’s profusion of collaborations. What now?
The Orchestra, led by Jason Swinscoe, ain’t too proud to recap their selling points. The massed wind on the title track of Ma Fleur veers close to cliché, as does the drumming at the close of “As the Stars Fall.” The latter is classic Cinematics: distinctive, ripe, magnificent, bizarre, ridiculous. It is also quite the best thing on the album, a slow-brewing guitar-storm and the only moment of momentum in a turgid, stodgy, self-indulgent mess. You could call it florid, but bear in mind the title—it’s not a charge Swinscoe and Co. appear to be fleeing.
Compared to the rife instrumental jones of yore, Ma Fleur’s main innovation is the preponderance of vocal-centric tracks, for which Swinscoe has recruited three different singers, two young singer-songwriters (Patrick Watson, Lou Rhodes) and Fontella “Rescue Me” Bass. Alas, Swinscoe has a much less intuitive feel for singers than he does for instruments—where earlier material shifted and evolved unpredictably, Ma Fleur’s songs feel tied to a vague idea of conventional song construction, constraining the rhythmic and harmonic experiments that kept the earlier albums engaging even as they remained steadily backgrounded. Swinscoe hasn’t entirely lost his ear for intricacy—the album improves substantially with a close listen—but Ma Fleur is by a wide margin the most soporific Cinematics album yet.
Rather than pseudo-jazz textures, Swinscoe breaks out (gasp) an acoustic guitar and Chris Martin’s piano for long, self-indulgent stretches. Reportedly Ma Fleur is the soundtrack to an imaginary film, but you wouldn’t want to see it—it would have to be one of those Hollywood mother-with-cancer, brother-with-AIDS sobbing heartstring-yankers to justify Lou Rhodes’ blather: “In joy and and pain / Each one will grow / For Wisdom is so much more than what we know… Dream, little girl, dream.”
“Time and Space" drags through some soupy strings towards the rather wan reward of shuffling cymbal rides and easy jazz piano. Swinscoe has used these ideas before, but heretofore the sadsack stuff has been corralled to passages within a larger, toothier whole. Ma Fleur is the stylistic opposite of the Herbaliser, whose impishness also grates but never drags.
The syrupy vocals, particularly Rhodes’, are exacerbated by the way Swinscoe cuts and splices them, so that longer phrases become overcome with an unwonted breathiness. Fontella Bass’s rusted brass weathers the treatment, mostly, but Patrick Watson, whose sweet spot would be in the tear-dripping curve of Antony Hegarty, sounds trite as a Dido deep cut. Predictably, the Orchestra works considerably better as a symphony band than an orchestral accompaniment.