PopMatters DECEMBER 3, 2004 - by John Davidson


Just who the hell is UNKLE anyway?

UNKLE as a working "group" has always been a loosely defined concept, one which in practice consists of a rotating cast of collaborators brought together by Mo' Wax Records founder, James Lavelle. Within electronic music circles, Lavelle is rightly considered one of the great tastemakers of the last decade. He is a man of unorthodox impulses, as one might gather about a man who first sets up a record label, and only years later decides to create music for the label himself. In it's original guise, UNKLE produced a series of EPs featuring Lavelle, Tim Galdsworthy and Japanese music producer Kudo. The debut album, Psyence Fiction, featured a shift in line-up, with beats supplied by DJ Shadow, and high-profile guest spots from Mike D (Beastie Boys), Thom Yorke (Radiohead) and Richard Ashcroft (The Verve). It never was clear-cut as to who comprised the collective.

So, who is UNKLE now? Well, tucked away in the liner notes of the inventive new release Never, Never, Land, there's a line which says "UNKLE is James Lavelle and Richard File". This seems about as misleading as ever. The extensive songwriting credits this time around include the names Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Ian Brown, 3D (Massive Attack), and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age). The acknowledgments page is a masterpiece of comic invention, one which further confuses the issue. Lavelle offers a "shout-out" to a hundred or so of his closest friends and workmates, before File acknowledges thirty-five pals and inspirations of his own. The kicker is "UNKLE thanks...", a list presumably compiled by all (two?) members of UNKLE. It's a list of Biblical proportions, or at the very least, a list that reads like a bible of the music industry. Don't these people believe in 'Thank You' cards? All of which is to say nothing of a further list of acknowledgements from producer Ant Genn (...and quite how Genn doesn't get to be a card carrying member of UNKLE is a mystery to me. The production on this album is spectacular, integral to its success). Next time, can't we all just get along without such encyclopedic props?

Anyway, the record itself is certainly one of the finer electronic music albums of the past year (you knew I'd get around to the music eventually, right?). Whether it should actually be considered an album of the past year, we'll leave for another day. It was originally released in England in October 2003.

The record opens with a haunting, yet blindingly straightforward sound sample taken from the work of British video artists, The Light Surgeons: "Life is changes... one second you got it made, next second you're down in the dumps... it goes back and forth your whole life...."

What follows is an often complex arrangement of sonic textures, played out though the ears and eyes of many, but most likely, through the guiding vision of one man. Lavelle himself has stated that if the album has a theme, it is an acknowledgement of the changes you go through growing up. It's an unlikely thread perhaps, but if the man says it's there, I'll take him at his word. That's because this isn't an album whose joys are to be found in lyrical content, but rather in sounds and ambience. The record is a direct descendant of trip-hop (for one thing, it's significantly influenced by film soundtracks), although it's fair to say that UNKLE lean much closer to the beat than to the trip. Often it resembles the dense claustrophobia of Massive Attack's 100th Window, so much so that I was surprised to find that 3D's contribution was limited to a single track, Invasion.

But then, mysteries abound. The credits for I Need Something Stronger include: "Synth, kaos and effects - Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker." Perhaps it's unfair to imagine that Eno, whose credits regularly include the words "synth" and "effects", supplied these very things, while Cocker busied himself creating "kaos"? As a lyricist with Pulp, Cocker was often memorable, yet the shortcomings the band possessed always struck me as resulting from a lack of music invention. I have a difficult time imagining Cocker's place in the scheme of these particular things, though doubtless they occurred. Certainly though, this is one track that wouldn't seem out of place on late Massive Attack.

And yes, the production on the album is exquisite, projecting a clear, full sound and highlighting several propulsive bass lines. Eye For An Eye, the first single, is at times almost too poppy - the chorus is overly ripe - yet the song manages to stay just on the right side of the commercial line, redeemed by the irresistible, driving bass.

Mani, formerly of The Stone Roses and latterly of Primal Scream, contributes bass on two separate tracks, most notably Reign, which sees him re-united with ex-Roses frontman Ian Brown. As per usual, Brown's voice suggests all the symptoms of serious nasal congestion, yet miraculously he somehow makes it work. Oh, that dulcet Mancunian phrasing... after which Mani let's rip, breaking free with substantive flair.

One consistent criticism of Psyence Fiction was that it had the feel of a compilation. Perhaps because of this I had an early, similar sense with this record too. Yet having listened numerous times now, I no longer feel that's the case. In fact, the works presents a fairly unified front. What Are You To Me? feels out of place, as damp as a baby's soiled diaper, but you remove it from the frame and the album feels quite of a piece. It's fairly miraculous, given the variety of contributors.

Psyence Fiction was released to considerable anticipation on the back of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..., but times have changed. Back then, there were those who thought that Shadow had re-written the book on hip-hop, and that that didn't prove to be the case is neither here nor there; it was still a masterly performance. Instead, Psyence Fiction was somehow a little disappointing on it's own terms, and since then electronic music has been forced further away from the mainstream. Seemingly it has reached a plateau from its more recent vast imaginative leaps. Yet while fashion has moved away from it of late, and as it slips back underground and regroups amidst a cacophony of scarcely original post-punk revivalists, its encouraging to find work such as this that continues to excite and develop. Drop it in your i-Pod, crank it up on the car stereo. You'll find it fills the space quite nicely.