Saturday, February 10, 2007

Children of Men

Various, The World Is Gone, XL Recordings

I like the style of the pen and ink drawings that decorate this debut, but I find illustrator David Bray's imagery kind of, well, icky, i.e. topless women battling forest creatures. Perhaps, if he'd rendered them with some degree of humor, but no, it's all pretty po-faced, expect for the sleepy-eyed lass on the back, gratefully accepting a cherry from a bird. The woman on the front [right] is wreaking havoc on an elk's antlers (the beast's intricately-rendered form is depicted on the second panel). The woman inside appears to be pleasuring herself with one hand while a wolf devours the other [below left]. Both are wearing black string bikinis and spike heels. If there's a message here, I'm missing it.

But as they say on KEXP, it's the music that matters. The World Is Gone isn't a various artists collection, and yet it is. I mean, Adam and Ian are producers who call on a number of unnamed vocalists. They are, therefore, like a various artists collective. The singer on the folk-oriented "Circle of Sorrow," for instance, sounds a lot like Helene Gautier of Starless & Bible Black, which is a very good thing indeed (even if she isn't). The rest were unfamiliar to me.

Like the much-admired Burial, Various are practitioners of dubstep. There's a lot of deep, echoey reverberation going on here (and I don't mean the psych-flavored 13th Floor Elevators kind). Bristol's Massive Attack and Tricky
are two acts that come to mind, but I'm reminded even more of the New Age Steppers--again, a very good thing indeed. That said, I'm not sure why writers don't refer to this kind of music as dub, electronica, or
trip-hop. Are these terms considered tired or played-out?
(My guess: yes.) The unintended consequence is that the sounds emerging from Various and Britain's other dubsteppers may end up having a short shelf life. Why condemn them to such a fate when they're just getting started and haven't infiltrated the US
yet? This is a fine album, and it deserves a wide audience.

My point is that I hear a continuum between this record and those of Adrian Sherwood's UK-based On-U Sound label, which was most active in the 1980s. Besides the Steppers, his stable included Tackhead, African Head Charge, and house band Creation Rebel (all of whom, like Various, depended on the kindness of guest vocalists). There isn't any reggae on this release, but then not all On-U Sound acts utilized Jamaican riddims. Because these 12 tracks are dark, yet melodic, I'm also reminded of 4AD supergroup This Mortal Coil. The vocalists, both male and female, are subtle and yet they can really sing. Think Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), Elizabeth Frazier (Cocteau Twins), etc. I don't think any of them would take offense if someone described their work as "pretty," even if the lyrics are on the introspective/despondent side.

The reason for the lack of press photos is because Adam and Ian prefer to be known by their music and by Bray's distinctive art. I'm not sure I agree with that approach--there's nothing crass about taking credit for your work--but two first names are better than none. It remains to be seen whether Various has a long career ahead of them or whether their anonymity gives way to pop posturing. Whether you call it dub, dubstep, or even dub-folk, all I know is that they've released one of the best albums of the year.

Endnote: Various plays their first-ever US show on Saturday, February 17th at Seattle's Chop Suey (21+, $10 advance).
Images from XL Recordings and Igloo Magazine.

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