Switched On – Stereolab: Electrically Possessed [Switched On Volume 4] – Warp Records / Duophonic UHF Disks

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Stereolab fans tend to be completists, and with good reason. The long running, much-loved band have taken line-up changes and relationships in their stride to be well-known for the consistency of their output. In recent years a housekeeping exercise on the back catalogue has yielded three excellent Switched On volumes, gathering together the band’s extra-curricular tracks, EPs and album-avoiding singles. Volume four of the Switched On collection goes further, a complement to the deluxe album reissues made over the last couple of years. Being a Stereolab fan is an expensive business, but a worthwhile one it seems!

What’s the music like?

As seasoned fans will know, there is something immediately appealing about the Stereolab sound, giving off a comforting warmth. Yet this is never comfortable music, for the spirit of experimentation runs strong, especially in tracks where there are no constraints or boundaries.

Most of the tracks here are instrumental, but they give the listener an opportunity to revel in the sound the band make. Lovely warm keyboards often spill over into Krautrock-inspired riffing, while on occasion there is a lovely cool marimba (Intervals) or the friendly parp of a trombone (Free Witch And No Bra Queen, a track where two simultaneous loops wander out of phase in entertaining fashion). This track also has some deliciously clashing harmonies from the multi-tracked vocals of Laetitia Sadlier.

The vibraphone and trombone-powered groove of Outer Bongolia is rather wonderful, the listener able to bask in the sounds, while Laetitia’s vocalise at the end of Intervals goes nicely with the marimba. I Feel The Air (Of Another Planet) is a beatless wonder with a nice strings / Hammond organ combination, while other highlights include the perky keyboards of Solar Throw-Away (the original version) and the breezy loop powering The Super It. B.U.A is enjoyably far out, while the best riff – among strong competition – goes to Dimension M2, burning a bright light.

Another talent the band has is somehow finding a funky turn for some pretty obscure time signatures. L’exotisme Interieur is the best of these, a track set in 7/4 but still getting the feet tapping.

Does it all work?

Yes. Electrically Possessed may not be an album as such but it is arranged in a satisfying program, so that its 27 tracks never outstay their welcome. The spirit of invention runs through it, and with a consistently high quality threshold it is very rare to get the sense the band are coasting or not fully focussed. In other bands’ outputs the scraps from the cutting room floor should be just that, but in Stereolab’s case the offcuts are well worth hearing and a pleasure to listen to.

Is it recommended?

Very much so – to Stereolab completists but also to relative newcomers to the band. These tracks may not all be fully formed but they are stamped throughout with the familiar identity of breezy funk, experimentation, offbeat rhythms and warm, beguiling sounds. It is a lovely collection to get lost in.

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Switched On: Still Corners – The Last Exit (Wrecking Light)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The press release for The Last Exit is particularly promising if you long to escape from the confines of isolation. Described as ‘a sweeping album about the open road’, and a record that ‘evokes the vast space of the desert and rolling unconcerned skies’, it is the fifth long player from Still Corners, the London-based project of Tessa Murray and Greg Hughes.

What’s the music like?

Still Corners have always painted vivid pictures with their music, and The Last Exit is no different – though regular listeners will note the appearance of more dust on the road this time round. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how that happens, but the instrumentation is definitely a factor, as are the husky tones of Murray.

Her voice immediately inhabits the story, taking the listener to those distant plans in the ghost stories White Sands and It’s Voodoo, where spirits roam the dunes and highways. This has a strong evocative of the dry heat underfoot and shimmering shapes on the horizon, with extra description and shade provided by Hughes’s guitar and the woolly atmospherics.  The same combination provides equally powerful images on Static and Till We Meet Again, which – like Crying – enhances its Wild West themes with distant whistling.

These three songs were written as a direct response to the Coronavirus pandemic, and they act as a manifestation of the great outdoors in whatever confined space you are listening in. Indeed, the band could almost be performing in a Nevada ghost town.

Does it all work?

Mostly. On occasion The Last Exit could do with some more directly melodic material, but it makes up for this through powerful evocations of time and place.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Devotees who have tracked the band for four albums will recognise their calling cards but also their progression to a deeper, more expansive sound, in spite of their numbers remaining at two.

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Switched On: Blanck Mass – In Ferneaux (Sacred Bones)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

There are just two tracks on In Ferneaux, the new release from Benjamin Power – the man behind Blanck Mass. They are long-form pieces of roughly equal length, drawing on Power’s substantial archive of field recordings from the last decade of travelling. It is in effect his way of continuing to travel in spite of lockdown conditions, with compositions brought about by extended time at home.

What’s the music like?

The output of Blanck Mass has never been short of substance or emotion, and Power confronts his feelings with typically direct musical honesty. In Ferneaux gives the impression of being a piece of work a long time in the making, needing extended time at home to realise its ambition.

The two tracks last just over 40 minutes and work in a single sequence on headphones or with surround sound. Their emotional impact and musical identity are strong, right from the start of Phase I, with its shimmering electronics. It is a powerful depiction (for me at any rate) of the bright, sunny days we experienced at the start of lockdown in the UK this time last year, and the burst of positive energy unleashes a flurry of rhythms. As these depart stage left the scene darkens, and an ominous drone takes over. From this a new regenerative process begins, and the musical camera pans out with big chord shifts – which in turn fade.

Power’s talent for moving between scenes comes from his experience with soundtrack work. Phase II, however, is an immediate jolt to the senses, beginning with a wall of uncompromising, metallic noise. This single blast introduces the most human of the field recordings so far, a personal conversation, on which Power reflects with slowly moving, cool sounds. The metallic blast returns, but just when it all feels too much consolation arrives in the form of big, woolly chords that the listener can dive into.

This is a prelude to the most confrontational music so far, a set of pounding rhythms and primal white noise, a party in a dungeon. Again the response is huge chords but the closing is pure and moving, a piano solo that loops round majestically. Ultimately the music fades away on the wind

Does it all work?

Yes – this is a compelling pair of sonic journeys, a travelogue of Power’s last decade on the road. The only regret is not knowing where some of the scenes were captured – but in turn that fuels the imagination when listening.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. In Ferneaux is a strong indication that Blanck Mass can work with bigger structures, reinforcing Power’s capabilities as a soundtrack composer but also emphasising the potential he has to go on to score longer, more classically-based works. His development promises to be fascinating.

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Switched On – Two Synths, A Guitar (And) A Drum Machine (Soul Jazz Records)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Soul Jazz describe their new compilation as ‘a new collection of current D-I-Y post-punk bands shaped by the mutant sounds of no wave, punk funk and New York Noise bands from the late 70s and early 80s that collided with the world of underground dance music found at the Paradise Garage, Mudd Club in New York City’.

This also incorporates influences from the UK – Manchester and Sheffield along with a bit of London – and makes for an open musical policy leading to a wide range of beats and rhythms.

What’s the music like?

Invigorating. The collection has such a wide range but is impeccably laid out, so that a noise-heavy track like Toresch’s Tocar can be followed by the cool keyboards of Becker & Mukai’s La Rivière des Perles.

Soul Jazz have cast the net far and wide to come up with a selection of 15 tracks from around the globe, so while New York and the UK hold the key for source material, the ear can track just how far those influences have travelled.

It’s great to see an appearance for Zongamin, whose elastic Underwater Paramid is a more recent track from the long running band. It comes after one of the best vocals on the collection, the distinctive call to arms from LA band Automatic giving Too Much Money pride of place at the front of the compilation. Not all the vocals are as endearing as theirs – Ixna’s Somebody Said will be too shrill for some tastes!

Elsewhere Gramme hit the centre of the dancefloor with a great bass line on Discolovers – excellent vocal too – while New FriesLily and Charles Manier’s Sift Through Art Collecting People are propulsive propulsive groovers. Meanwhile Niagara explore dubbier territory with Ida, as does Black Deer’s Baseball Shorts, taking in even wider perspectives. Wino D expands the mind still further with the final Untitled, drifting away in a spacey cloud of atmospherics at the end.

Does it all work?

It does. Soul Jazz know more than most record labels how to make a good compilation, and the abundance of notes that goes with the music is the icing on the cake. For that reason – not to mention the eyecatching artwork – a physical purchase is the way to go.

Is it recommended?

Yes, enthusiastically. If your shelves already groan under the weight of Soul Jazz releases then you are advised to add a few hundred grams more to the mix. An excellent set of tunes that will introduce you to some new names.

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You can hear clips from the compilation and purchase from the Soul Jazz shop, Sounds Of The Universe

Switched On: Jimmy Edgar – Cheetah Bend (Innovative Leisure)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Jimmy Edgar has been far from idle in his music making over the last decade, but this is his first completed album in nine years. Cheetah Bend is a mixture of solo cuts and collaborations, with vocalists Danny Brown, Rochelle Jordan, B La B and Hudson Mohawke adding their vocal talents to Edgar’s electronic workings.

What’s the music like?

Those electronic workings are fascinating, building on Edgar’s work with a hybrid of styles. Techno is prominent in his thoughts, but so is hip hop and big room R&B. The latter skill is used to great effect on Metal and Turn, where corrugated warehouse beats provide the ideal offshoot to the excellent vocals.

In addition to those mentioned above, Millie Go Lightly coos on Be With You, while Danny Brown’s contribution on Get Up gees the listener up for the album, aping James Brown’s Get Up Offa That Thing with the lyric ‘you gotta do better’. It’s a really good interpretation of a song that hits the sweet spot between tribute and remix. The bigger beats of Cheetah work well with Semma’s vocal, as does Ready2Die, fronted by Messer, which becomes something of a torch song. The single Bent, released last year, hits the treble hard too:

Happily Edgar goes for a P-funk excursion on Zigzag, the best instrumental cut on the album, while the glitchy Curves signs off with typically liquid grooves.

Does it all work?

Yes. Edgar evokes a dark club where sweat runs down the walls because everyone’s dancing, and his clever way with beats keeps things interesting and extremely varied. The influences of Prince, Funkadelic, Timbaland and Detroit techno are just some elements at play in music that sounds like it could be a derivative mish mash of styles, but actually turns out to be far more original and interesting.

Is it recommended?

It certainly is. Jimmy Edgar is always on the prowl – and as the title suggests, Cheetah Bend is a sleek beast looking for a kill. It succeeds effortlessly here.

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