About Group's new album “Start and Complete” is an experiment in spontaneity. A fine idea, but does spontaneity really breed better music?
When About Group got together to record their new album, songwriter Alexis Taylor (of Hot Chip) sent the other bands members a CD with each of his songs in vocal/piano format. These musicians (Charles Hayward (This Heat), John Coxon (Spring Heel Jack, Spiritualized) and Pat Thomas) then had a just few days to get their ideas down, before they would head into the studio for just one day. The driving idea was that their initial instincts would rule, given the lack of time to craft anything else.
Perhaps this desire for spontaneity was driven by a suspicion of contrivance. Perhaps more time, more thought, they felt, would dilute the emotional honesty. They wanted to do something different. And this in itself is admirable. But it is the very lack of structure, which strikes me as the very thing missing from this album. And whatever spontaneity they sought, being a band who had previously mainly played live together, I didn't feel. Puzzled, I asked myself, what is this album?
“Start and Complete” feels very much like a “variation on a theme” with the theme clearly being the trials and tribulations of being in a relationship. This isn't particularly new, and it doesn't have to be. The relationship is dysfunctional. There are plenty of those in the world too. I delve deeper. So what is there that defines this work? What does it offer?
And then, as I hear Taylor's voice in the song “Repair Man” sing, “If something is fixed, then I don't exist” it hits me. This is therapy. Here is a man, or group of men, who are unable to move on. They are emotionally stuck – and this same stuckness runs right through this album.
Whether designed or accidental, Start and Complete goes round and round. The theme of loss, of longing, or wishing to be with his lover reoccurs in every track. Just as the lyrics repeat the same emotional theme, every track offers similar variations on the organ, Wurlitzer, drums and guitar. In several tracks, what sounds like R2-D2's cousin appears to do a digital turn. However, as Start and Complete progresses, the variations begin to feel less like variations and more like a repetition.
Taylor's sorrowful vocals open the majority of the album's tracks. In “Nothing but Words” the theme from Repair Man is re-emerges through the variation, “…more than these words, I'd have no more to learn.” While in “Lay Me Down” he sings, “All this noise between us, keeps us quiet.” The palpable sense of disconnection to the lover prevails. Taylor wants to fix, to repair, and yet cannot do this. The woman he loves is impossible to pin down.
Just as I was beginning to feel the stuckness in myself and needed a little movement, “You're No Good” kicks in. A great departure in tone to the rest of the album, an almost funky beat rides the chorus, “You're no good. I have to cut you loose. What's the use?” Something has lifted. The resignation is gone and we're dancing. The track plays for over 11 minutes, with the second half turning into a great jam. And this, I realise, is why this band play together.
They can jam. They can get funky when they want to. I imagine they can entertain too. And it seems that it is this feel they they hoped for in recording this album in quick time, to keep that living breathing energy. But an album needs to be crafted. It needs time. Sometimes the first ideas aren't always the best – and when there's no chance for perspective, you repeat yourself.
I'd certainly watch About Group play live, but as far as Start and Complete goes, I was complete at the start. I'd heard what I needed to hear in the first few tracks. That said, the penultimate track, “Dreamt I Saw You Late Last Night” offers hope of change. “You told we where your heart was lying, promised me you would meet me there.” Maybe there is a promise in this line. To regroup and record again. I'd like to hear what's in their heart. A heart ready to make change.
About Group are:
Charles (This Heat, Camberwell Now)
John (Spring Heel Jack, Spiritualized)
Pat (has played with Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley)
Alexis (Hot Chip)
Released April 18th on Domino Records
“There are too many Andrew Southerns in the world. I’ve checked. There’s a whole bunch of us. It’s kind of annoying. In an over-populated world it’s humbling to realise there are multiple versions of you. Maitland, on the other hand, is a name you don’t see.
Like any writer, I need to make my mark. So I can sink into the Andrew Southern soup or go the Maitland way. It’s a name my ego loves and humility shies away from. I can’t sink into the soup. It’s not my style. So grandiosity it is. You can call me Andrew, though. Not Andy. There are too many of those too.