I’ve always wished for some kind of innate musical talent. Being able to pick up an instrument and make a pleasant noise or convey some form of legible tune would be marvellous. Pointless and only enhancing my laziness, but marvellous nevertheless.
Jamie Smith, better known as the production third of The xx and a producer in his own right, brought me closest to such an experience during the German exchange in year 9. Within seconds of spotting a steel drum, I was merrily reciting his recent release ‘Far Nearer’, which has maintained its spot as my song for the sun bursting through into summer ever since.
Such, well, straightforward radiance is reflected in the chromatic cover of debut long-release In Colour, though the LP is unfortunately not as prevailingly joyous as this implies.
Things begin on a dodgy step, with lead track ‘Gosh’. As with much of the album, ‘Gosh’ relies on samples of conversation and spoken interjections – in this case from an unaired radio show by DJ Ron and MC Strings – in order to convey some form of narrative. It doesn’t work.
The instrumental itself more closely reflects ‘Far Nearer’’s B-side ‘Beat For’, with its grungy percussive introduction climaxing in a piercing wail that strikes a contrast perhaps too extreme with its sugary melody. This side to Smith’s production comes as no surprise, but it feels a bit of an awkward way to commence the album.
‘Sleep Sound’, which, along with ‘Girl’, first saw release last summer, follows, and is a splendid waft that would be more suited as a closer, while the obnoxiously-named ‘Obvs’ fills the steel drum void in a more club-friendly fashion. After a minute and a half of quietly escalating harmonies, a glockenspiel comes in for a pleasant drop though, coming 15 minutes into the run-time, it proves underwhelming for those yearning a ‘harder’ tribute.
It’s as the album rushes towards its finale that Smith’s superb production actually results in enjoyable music. The aforementioned ‘Girl’ is joyously smooth and spreadable – like Nutella – whilst ‘Hold Tight’ is reminiscent of an adventurous mix of deadmau5’s 2012 track ‘Fn Pig’ in terms of its escalation and simplicity.
Though my major criticism of the album comes with the spoken vocal snippets, it is through sampling that the two strongest tracks on the album are fabricated. Both ‘Loud Places’ and ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’ rely on excerpts from old soul tracks to provide reinforcement to choruses and featured vocalists to great effect.
‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’ is in much the same vein as ‘Far Nearer’, as steel drums provide a vibrant and summery aesthetic, though the structure is far more conducive to a wider audience. Featuring the vocal presence of Young Thug and Popcaan, the track promises to serve as a timeless signifier of the sun emerging over a lovely park. Admittedly this would be a proverbial park in which nobody could quite hear clearly, as Thugga Thugga (as he refers to himself) raps largely illegible lyrics that are perhaps too explicit for these pages. I genuinely don’t know. 99% of his noises are just that, but at least the package functions pleasantly.
Then there’s ‘Loud Places’, one of three collaborations with his xx bandmates Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim. This time around, it’s Romy’s duty to take the vocals, and her delivery is sublime. The song, which was recently featured in a BBC advertisement, brings a unifying singalong quality that is sure to delight summer assemblies, overlooking its melancholic lyricism.
In an effort to pay homage to the UK’s rich dance music culture, Smith tends to get bogged down in percussive breaks and spoken bridges, encouraging the listener to persist. ‘All Under One Roof Raving’, the ultimate example of this, does not feature on the album, though its yet paler imitations do.
It has been said that the next xx record will take hints from this sojourn by Jamie, and I wholeheartedly hope this to be the case. The benefit of outside influences shows. Four of the album’s finest half feature friends on vocal duties, lending the music a cohesive and genuinely enjoyable feel. That is surely the best form of flattery.