Saturday, May 22, 2010

Coldcut - Sound Mirros (Original TC Review)

Best Price: $11.98

Ninja Tune: Cat. # ZEN CD 115
Released February 21, 2006

Track List:
1. Man In A Garage (3:27)
2. True Skool (3:34)
3. Just For The Kick (5:06)
4. Walk A Mile In My Shoes (5:08)
5. Mr. Nichols (5:46)
6. A Whistle And A Prayer (5:55)
7. Everything Is Under Control (3:36)
8. Boogie Man (3:49)
9. Aid Dealer (4:13)
10. This Island Earth (4:14)
11. Colours The Soul (4:19)
12. Sounds Mirrors (5:59)

(2010 Update:
As tediously bulky as this review is, it really isn't all that bad of a read. Could probably have shaved 1000 words off though, and still come out fine. Heh, I even realized how large it was getting midway through. The unfortunate thing is, though this album has held up quite well (musically anyway), I probably gave it more attention than most others did. By the end of 2006, few folks could even remember that Coldcut had a new album out. Quite a shame, really.)

IN BRIEF: Refresher in the Coldcut ethos, in case you missed it this past 20 years.

As a duo who’ve garnered many plaudits, you can be rest assured there would be a plethora of reviewers jumping at the chance to cover Coldcut’s latest full-length, Sound Mirrors. Every music critic with a not-so-humble opinion, after all, undoubtedly would love their word to be the first and final say regarding a new release from one of electronic music’s seminal tastemakers.

Since a couple months have passed since this was released, I decided to quickly scour the net for such reviews before I tackled it myself (for no better reason than to make sure I wouldn’t end up repeating what’d already been said). Unsurprisingly, good ol’ Google returned plenty of results. What struck me as odd, however, was the source of many of these reviews: a high percentage of them came from rock, indie, or mainstream outlets. Either the EDM media’s reviews were greatly overshadowed, or it just didn’t care as much.

Actually, I can see both reasons being somewhat related. Let’s face it: Coldcut are old... in EDM terms, anyway. Many of their original fans have grown into the establishment, and those who write about them have managed to worm their way into reputable rags. However, with the advent of more and more splinter scenes causing tunnel vision in the new cats, and the fact Coldcut really haven’t had a hit in years, their exposure seems to only be relegated to the oldest of old schoolers and Ninja Tune disciples... and boy do those reviews show it.

Ratings for Sound Mirrors thus far have been all over the map. Some have proclaimed this is the return of Coldcut everyone’s been waiting for. Others have stated the album sounds like Jonathon More and Matt Black have run out of innovative ideas, considering they had nearly a decade to produce something new. A few still don’t quite understand the big deal of over-indulgent ‘cut ‘n’ paste’ production, and still a few more seem to have just been exposed to it and think it’s genius. I’ve read a couple which seem to state more about the respect Coldcut deserve, giving the material just rewards for past achievements; oppositely, some believe the duo shouldn’t be given a bye for any missteps, letting the music speak for itself. And yet a couple-

Wait a minute! Am I here to review Sound Mirrors, or review other reviewers’ reviews of Sound Mirrors? I’ll stop now.

What we have here with Coldcut’s latest is More and Black bringing in a whole wack of collaborators, giving them each a unique musical backdrop, and, as is quite trendy right now, throwing political messages into the mix.

Okay, Coldcut have always had a few political songs in their prior releases, but normally mixed in with good ol’ party music to lighten the atmosphere. In Sound Mirrors though, even the fun tracks have messages in them (if at times minute) and are massively outnumbered by the melancholy numbers. All well and good to get some activism going in a generally apathetic crowd but with so many musicians doing this lately, it begs the question whether Coldcut’s messages will be poignant enough to get a few off their asses, or if it will just sound preachy and cliché. Let’s find out!

First up is Man In A Garage, a sort of folksy acoustic tune with electronic rhythms and effects burbling about. John Mattias provides the lyrics, an individual I only know as the butt end of jokes regarding khaki-sporting warblers. He doesn’t seem to have much to say in this case, repeating lines like “slide over” and “I just dialed this number, won’t you help me please?” It may be an allegory towards the repetitiveness of corporate operations but Mattias sounds too cryptic to be sure. Still, Man In A Garage is a decent, if odd, opener.

The always reliable Roots Manuva drops in for some speechifying with True Skool, essentially reminding us to keep shit real and not buy into false hype. I seem to hear this from him a lot but his Metaphor Well has yet to run dry, so it still sounds fresh. Musically, Coldcut don’t do much, keeping the arrangements sparse so Manuva can carry the song. Hand claps, 808 bass booms, a looping scratched-up sample, and Indian tablas and chants make up the bulk.

And with gaudy ‘electro’ house being all the rage these days, you just knew More and Black would have a go at it as well. Of course, they drop a message into the track, describing the very thing wrong with this music: its lack of musical ingenuity, settling for overly simple rhythms and hooks. Mind, they don’t blame the producers for this, but our complacent, self-absorbed society for being content with it and not demanding better. Yeah, it’s nothing original; we’ve heard Miss Kittin alone say the same thing for over half a decade now. Track’s alright though.

Walk A Mile In My Shoes brings house legend (and liquid funk favorite) Robert Owens in for a little soulful rendition over scattering rhythms and orchestral swells. The message? Try living a less privileged life, Mr. Well-Off! Heh, okay, it isn’t really that cynical. It’s more about getting the upper class to at least understand the situation of the poor rather than callously ignore them. And it helps that Owens’ passionate delivery gives this song honest-to-God sincerity.

Now we’ve arrived at the turning point of Sound Mirrors: Mr. Nichols. The album’s atmosphere totally changes from here: whereas the first few tracks were content to just be songs, Coldcut’s Big Messages begin to take larger precedent over the music with Mr. Nichols onward. The music in this track is practically non-existent, allowing Saul Williams’ spoken poetry to carry things over muted acoustic strums and jazzy noodlings. In addition, I’ve noticed opinions on this album tend to directly correspond with what you get out of Mr. Nichols. The storyline revolves around some Corporate McCorporateson, having been disillusioned by the capitalist system failing him, contemplates suicide. Saul’s spoken words offers Nichols an alternative, suggesting he let go of the corporate shackles and seek spiritual comfort. What does he decide? I don’t know. The song never seems to reveal that answer. Although there’s a specific story to this track, it’s just as much about the disillusionment many go through as the futures we dreamt of don’t quite pan out. As such, I can see how many could relate to this track, undoubtedly having gone through similar scenarios. Those who haven’t would probably interpret Mr. Nichols more literally, and be turned off by the pandering towards a corporate shill who never had the fortitude to break free before.

Shit, that was a big paragraph. Let’s get back to the album, eh?

As mentioned, the dynamic of Sound Mirrors does take a drastic change in tone with Mr. Nichols, and A Whistle And A Prayer carries on in similar fashion. This is an absolutely desolate track; I feel like I’m in the middle of some post-apocalyptic landscape, remnants of an ancient playground scattered about where the foundations are flaking off in the wind. The addition of a little folksy whistle tune only adds to the sense of innocence lost. It’s very cinematic, but quite dreary so be prepared.

In an attempt to lighten the mood again, Coldcut get all faux-cock-rock in Everything Is Under Control. It’s a cute novelty track, but nothing unique or enduring. The message in this one is every organization has control over each other and the world at large by means of corrupt manipulation and power-hungry overseers. No, really? What shocking news! I’m glad Coldcut is here to tell us this; I’d already forgotten since I last read it on an indie blog just two hours ago, much less in every post-9/11 liberal rant.

Boogie Man is a straight-forward ‘cut ‘n’ past’ dubby bit of broken beat. As usual, More and Black scrounge up some deliciously wicked ancient funk breaks and infuse them with a balanced mix of studio trickery. The lyrics could be interpreted as being spoken by a C.I.A. spook, but I’d rather just go with it being a guy who just likes to boogie. Why should everything have a political slant on here? It’s not like we don’t have enough of it already.

Like in Aid Dealer. This track opens with the title being repeated endlessly, and annoyingly gets stuck in your head. Then over one of those many sub-genres of UK garage (dubstep? grime? sublow? sub-grimestep??? I haven’t a clue), Sowento Kinch lays out the corruption in those charity organizations for Third World countries. Wait, even those seemingly nice people, who advertise on TV with several doe-eyed malnourished children and host mega charity concerts are just as slimy as capitalist pigs? My God, is there no decency left in this world!? Mind, this might have been shocking news to me had I not heard this rant from a sock puppet on Canada’s music station a few years before. Aid Dealer has a message to tell, but like these other highly political songs, it’s nothing we haven’t heard in the last five years from several other artists and activists. Music’s pretty good though.

This Island Earth also has a message to tell, this time about how we have to take care of our planet. Fortunately, Mpho Skeef’s diva delivery is quite nice for this track’s garagey backings, so it doesn’t come across as heavy-handed as some of the others. Oh, and that bass! It’ll definitely get the sub-whoofer fanboys’ pants wet.

Two instrumentals close the album out. Colours The Soul has some nice orchestral samples but is a pretty bland bit of acid jazz. However, Sound Mirrors uses a quirky looping sample of... um, I’m not sure what it is actually. My best guess is a strangled recording of a Japanese folk song, but given Coldcut’s intense music archiving, I could be way off base. Anyway, Sound Mirrors adds additional layers of a wide assortment of sources, each loop playing off the initial once. Eventually, big orchestral swells build into the peak of the track, then everything is cut back, letting the initial loop fade off. It’s actually quite the nifty sonic experiment, and dare I say the best thing on this whole album. Why? For that answer, check my closing thoughts below.

Let me first address my main gripe: the political nature of a number of these songs. I’m not against their messages but, unfortunately for Coldcut (whom are always sincere when it comes to politics), nothing new is added to the plate. Had this been released before or even shortly after 9/11, perhaps their words would hold more impact, but even Top 40 acts have managed to worm in similar activist slants. Besides, a great deal of Coldcut’s fanbase are already boned up on these issues anyways, so it just comes off as preaching to the choir if you’re a long-time fan.

All this wouldn’t be the problem with Sound Mirrors it is if it weren’t for the fact so many songs are vocal driven. It’s no surprise to me the better songs on this album are where we get to hear Coldcut do what they do best, namely produce music that creates a collage of disparate sounds. This just doesn’t happen enough though, and a number of songs are bland or uninteresting when the lyrics seems to be the focus. The end results sound like they could have been made by any number of artists.

I’m not saying Coldcut shouldn’t have done what they did with Sound Mirrors. They’ve been in the game for over two decades, and having nothing to prove; More and Black have earned the right to do whatever they want with their music. It’s just something of a letdown they instead decided to add yet another unnecessary voice to an already noisy activism crowd. We’ve always known where they stood on the political spectrum, so re-hashing the same speeches when everyone else is doing it now just sounds redundant.

Sound Mirrors is still an above average album though. Even if they don’t do as much as I’d have hoped, the music production is top notch, and you can’t beat the creativity or the variety to be had in the soundscapes Coldcut has crafted here. If you don’t mind a little (okay, a lot) of activism in your music, then do check this release out. There’s not much else out there that sounds quite like Sound Mirrors.

Score: 7/10

Walk A Mile In My Shoes
Boogie Man
Sound Mirrors

Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2006 for © All rights reserved.

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