Review: UNKLE - ‘The Road: Part II / Lost Highway’
Wherever you stand on electronic music, not many can throw a shadow larger than James Lavelle. Credited for being a spearhead of the nineties trip-hop movement, to starting up the highly influential Mo Wax imprint which gave rise to acts like DJ Shadow and DJ Krush, alongside becoming a ‘superstar’ DJ in the late-nineties/early ’00s, the man has more strings to his bow than Robin Hood.
It seems his most enduring project, however, has been UNKLE, his live rock/electronica hybrid. Their ’98 debut ‘Psyence Fiction’ was a trailblazing release still talked about in revered tones, but for this reviewer, it was the third outing ‘War Stories which stands out as their pièce de résistance. Featuring contributions from Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Home and The Cult’s Ian Astbury, it showcased James Lavelle’s excellent command of tension and release and melodic arrangements, really outing him as a songwriter in full command of his craft. (War Stories was a minor success in Australia and even debuted at number 58 on the local charts). However, does he reach those lofty heights with the new 2CD release ‘The Road: Part II / Lost Highway’?
In some parts it does and other parts it doesn't. The good news is that It either hits or grazes the mark more than it misses. Then again, it was always going to be a hard task to achieve excellence across a 2CD, 22-track opus. As is the case with UNKLE releases, it is filled to the brim with contributors - and also with different genres.
Melancholy fills many compositions. ‘Long Gone’, a stripped back acoustic number featuring Noel Gallagher contributor Ysée, urges the listener to ‘Keep Moving On’. A cover of a Roberta Flack original, ‘The First Time I Saw Your Face’ is a lamentable moment which could easily be mistaken for a Cinematic Orchestra production.
Lavelle wears his dream of being a rock star on his sleeve, and the album does see him indulge in that aspiration. The opening tom salvo on ‘Nothing to Give’ reminds of the syncopated rhythms found on the beginning of Marilyn Manson’s ‘Beautiful People’, while ‘Crucifixion/a Prophet’, which features no less nine contributors, is decked out with a slow grunge beat that slowly swells into an intense crescendo.
It’s not all organic, and rockstar vibes though, with electronica sprinkled generously throughout. Lavelle channels Radiohead via In Rainbows on the ethereal ‘Powder Man’, while ‘Reprise’ serves as a straight-up electronica extension of ‘Days and Nights’. Over a beatless, almost ambient palette, The Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan ruminates about love on opener ‘Requiem (When You Talk About Love)’, and even features random vocal samples from Scottish actor Brian Cox (he used to be Lavelle’s landlord).
The biggest hits though are first single ‘Ar.mour’, a straight up trip-hop banger that catches the attention from the very first beat. On ‘Only You’ Lavelle flexes his productions skills with an epic cut that wouldn't sound out of place on the rolling credits of a James Bond flick.
More a studio jam session than a complete track, ‘Kubrick’ acts as one of the more interesting tracks and features the Clash’s Mick Jones. An off-tune sounding guitar strums over the top of an equally off-key sounding piano. Jones’ stretched and modulated vocals harmonises to discombobulate the listener - an appropriate ode to the works of Stanley Kubrick then. (On the interlude ‘Iter X: Found’ Kubrick’s widow Christiane Kubrick philosophises on the Self)
No doubt 22 tracks is a sprawling project that might struggle to keep attention. Then again, does Lavelle care? Should he care? ‘The Road: Part II / Lost Highway’ is the work of a man who is less inclined to worry about what people might think, and more interested in staying true to himself and give a voice to the art within pushing to get out - and for that I am grateful. In this age of Soundcloud rap and 120-second songs, we need more souls who are interested in being true to themselves and letting the music breathe.
‘The Road: Part II / Lost Highway’ is Lavelle at his creative best.
Words: Sterling Copper