Thursday, 11 June 2015

When Hackney Becomes Hackneyed: Or Why Jamie XX's Solo Debut Isn't Any Good

Xylophones and steel drums have rarely been known to cause arguments, but the debut album from Jamie Smith, more commonly known as Jamie XX, features both heavily and has been the cause of much debate in the music press since its release just less than a fortnight ago. Whilst it has engendered gushing reviews in some quarters (Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound) in others it has provoked derision (The Quietus, Resident Advisor). The Guardian has even seen fit to write an article analysing various reviews and questioning whether this divisiveness is the result of musical snobbery. The battle lines seem to be roughly drawn with media outlets more commonly associated with electronic music on the against side, and those not on the for side. Given this divide, questions regarding authenticity and populism immediately arise. However, I thought that more analysis of the music itself may help us understand why the record has split opinion so conspicuously, and why in particular the electronic music community has not been in favour.

Jamie XX came to fame in 2009 as the drummer and percussionist of The XX, a band whose sound is heavily rooted in the guitar, though not necessarily in the traditional sense. The minimalism of The XX, where moments of quiet and silence are abundant and instruments are given plenty of room to breathe, is very much in contrast to the majority of guitar music that has enjoyed popularity since the onset of rock & roll. This said, we didn't really see the more electronic side of Smith until later, with the release of his collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron We're New Here, in 2011. It makes sense that his solo debut is informed heavily by the work with his bandmates, and the problem is that the record is ensnared by many of the pitfalls that indie musicians often encounter when dealing with the world of electronic music.

The problems become plain on the opening track, Gosh, which features clattering breakbeats and bolted-on UK MC samples. The track plods along unoffensively without much happening for the first half of it's running time, the first couple of minutes surely forming just the build up to something more interesting. What we get instead is the cheesiest searing synth line that could possibly have been mustered cutting through the mix. Electronic music is rarely about melody. Primarily it is about rhythm and sound design, and electronic producers generally eschew traditional melody leads as they can often sound mawkish in context. That's the issue here - it's clearly designed for some hands-in-the-air festival moment but unfortunately it's just as likely to induce cringes as euphoria. This is similarly true of Obvs, a track which trades on Smith's signature steel drums and proceeds with all of the poise and restraint of a child with a Casio keyboard in a music lesson. Acknowledging that a track relies heavily on your trademark gimmick by naming it Obvs does not make it any less self-parody either.

Mid album interlude Just Saying deals in faux-emotional ambiance, and is the encapsulation of the trouble with much of the album; everything is just too obvious. There is no subtlety. Electronic music generally holds something in reserve and doesn't pull so conspicuously for the heartstrings, everything here is in contrast so schmaltzy.

From here we progress to Stranger in a Room, featuring Smith's bandmate Oliver Sim. Lyrically the song assumes the trope of it's title, a tale of a lonely sexual encounter on a night out. It's as if Smith uses devices like these to reinforce his club credentials, cheekily stealing cliched aspects of dance music culture without really engaging with it fully, bolting simple melodies onto electronic instrumentation which is never used to its potential.

Loud Places works similarly, but steals a vocal line wholesale from Idris Muhammad's 1977 track Could Heaven Ever Be Like This. It's not that sampling in itself is bad, it's a fundamental part of electronic music. It's just that the use of the sampler is supposed to bring something new to the original sound, to draw out some aspect that wasn't so obvious or to place the sound in a new context. Instead Loud Places depends almost entirely on the vocal, something that can also be said for the better parts of I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times), the rap on which is so appalling it's not even worth mentioning.

Elsewhere much of the album sounds paper thin. Much has been written on various forums about the lack of dynamic range (an important aspect of electronic music, particularly in the club) in Smith's music, but there are places where there actually appears to be something of a mastering problem. Although SeeSaw is a well written track, there is a horrible crack and clatter on some of the drums which partly spoil its enjoyment.

The strongest moment comes on the previously released Sleep Sound, whose shuffling drums and strange melodies recall Smith's contemporary Four Tet (aka Keiran Hebden). It's a shame that there are not more moments on the record like this, as In Colour could really have done with some more Hebden-style weirdness.

Other recent album's like Caribou's Our Love which have referenced rave and UK dance music from a more "indie" perspective have been far more successful because they have brought something new to these kinds of ideas. Our Love had for more variety. It was pretty, but did not aim solely for mushy prettiness, instead also looking at some of the darker sides of love and dancing. It also featured much more sonic variety.

It strikes me that the negative reaction of the electronic music community to In Colour is because they believe a cynicism is at play here. There is no doubt that the record will be extremely popular, and the references to rave and dance culture will somehow give it more of a cool edge. It's unfortunate that Smith has chosen to take on some cliches without really bringing anything new to the table. It's not that there is anything wrong with being derivative, but it's better to be derivative of the more interesting parts of a culture. To me this isn't so much appropriation as it is inauthentic.