23 September 2008

Squarepusher – Just a Souvenir

(2008, Warp Records)

I got this and was shocked. FACT said it was SP gone rock, but I snorted at the thought. Turns out it's really, really good. I am so gonna get this on vinyl. And not just because of the gorgeous artwork...

***


A trend has been emerging in recent years over at that Sheffield stronghold, Warp. It has manifested as an increasing penchant for rock instrumentation. Successful in some instances, such as the mystifyingly under-appreciated Standards set by Tortoise, it has quite literally thrown up such chunks as Maximo Park. And middling bands like Battles. Meanwhile, Tom ‘Squarepusher’ Jenkinson has lurked in the shadows.

After spending the 1990s as a leading light of drill ‘n’ bass (producing scintillating records like Big Loada), lately he has meandered. Some tracks have heartened in their quality (‘My Red Hot Car’; ‘Planetarium’), but the albums seemed not quite to gel.

If reinvention were required to regain a seat at the table of electronica glitterati, Squarepusher has achieved that and more, appearing to have sent his IDM past(iche) packing. In a move sure to alienate old school Warp heads, Jenkinson has… gone prog?

Not actually ‘prog’ in the traditional sense, there is a definite theme of technically adventurous, 1970s-influenced writing on Just a Souvenir. Beginning as a Utopian dreamstate about an unreality rock band, the album eases fans, ‘Red Hot Car’ parking up to the piano ‘Where Love Lives’. The mysterious ‘Coathanger’ appears on the second track, where it all goes ‘Flawless’-ly strange.

This is rock way beyond the slightly annoying Battles, like liquid in flow and unpredictability. ‘A Real Woman’ sees ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ spliced with Hazlehurst’s ‘Sorry’ theme, working bizarrely well. ‘Delta-V’ is pure tech-rock, highlighting Jenkinson’s familiarity with the bass guitar. To compare this with Warp’s rockers does the record a disservice; its marriage of wizardry with inspiration finds closer kin with Lightning Bolt.

The elite rock peaks on the inferno surface of ‘Planet Gear’, balancing distorted, fractured bass lines with the soothing balm brought by calm Acid melodies. Squarepusher walks a tightrope throughout, teetering between utter insight and pure vocoder, 70s dinnertime game show cheese; it is at times like this when an artist works free of self consciousness, able to scale the heights.

While musically quite daring, the album is a lean 44 minutes: this is a relief as the pudding could have been over-egged had it neared the hour mark of its predecessor. There is even an apparent nod to prog-celebs in the linguistically contrary ‘Yes-Sequiteur’, and it’s a relief that as he has a laugh, Squarepusher is kicking out the jams with the very best of the rockers. Yet more pastiche? Perhaps, but more than welcome when it sounds this good.

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