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Wild Beasts
Smother Rory Gibb , May 9th, 2011 14:23

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The trajectory from Wild Beasts' jittery and dramatic debut Limbo, Panto through the slinky sex grooves of Two Dancers to ultra-refined new album Smother has defied a central convention of modern pop logic: their popularity has continued to grow as their music has increasingly thrown off any regard for what the listener ought to desire. Which, when you consider that the group have become stranger and stranger over that period, is a real achievement in a world where pop choruses rely on hideously overwrought dynamics and radio-friendly production tricks. Playing all three records alongside one another reveals an ongoing process of refinement, of stripping away all excess fat and smoothing away all the edges to leave little but bone, sinew and heart. Jagged guitars had all but disappeared by the time of their last album, to be replaced with warm, undulating grooves that flowed like liquid, and now, with Smother, the value of silence as an instrument has fully informed their music. With it has come a sense of increased focus, something Two Dancers already showed no lack of.

But while that sort of approach might be expected to produce increasingly pop-friendly results, in Wild Beasts' case it's only served to highlight the sinister heart that beats at their music's core. Even at its most upbeat and obvious, the quartet's songs have always felt like reactions to a world largely desensitized to sex and violence, and the points at which the two intersect within modern society. Their lyrical imagery and delivery, whilst often passive in its aggression (sexual or otherwise) and deliberately gender-blurred, tends to point towards extremes – love as predatory act and controlling in nature, a far cry from romantic ideals. In Two Dancers' drug-fuelled opener 'The Fun Powder Plot' that was delivered in a chilling shriek: "This is a booty call / My boot, my boot, your arsehole". What makes 'The Lion's Share', its counterpart on Smother, even more unsettling is that Hayden Thorpe's delivery is calm and detached as he swoops in on the object of his desire: "I wait until you're woozy, I lay low until you're lame, I take you in my mouth like a lion takes its game".

In both these aspects Smother is a subtly transgressive album, even more so than Two Dancers. It's unmistakably a pop record, but musically it plays havoc with easy notions of what pop music should sound like in order to gain any sort of audience. And it's unmistakably an album about love, but its lyrical concerns are often taboo. Even as they're veiled in both Thorpe's and Tom Fleming's cryptic fondness for the literary, they touch on generally unmentioned darker sides to human relationships (both sexual and platonic) – exploitation, dependence, frustrated desire. That these concerns are set to the group's most subtly sensual arrangements to date heightens the contrast, and lays bare a tangible tension that fuels this excellent record. The gulf between 'The Lion's Share's tales of self-gratification and its sparingly pretty synth and piano arrangement, for example, couldn't be wider, and the same is true of 'Plaything's deeply unsettling chorus, "You're my plaything, you're my plaything / But I'm wondering what you're thinking". But it would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that Smother is all dark side. Most songs here operate on several levels at once, and their beauty is to explore the push and pull of conflicted emotions, all the way from the immediacy of physical desire ("I would lie anywhere with you / Any old bed of nails would do", with Thorpe's partner as Ophelia on 'Bed Of Nails') to extending the arm of peace after an acrimonious split ("remember the olive branch" on album highlight 'Reach A Bit Further').

Compositionally too, the group take current pop trends and flip them on the head. Already this year we've seen no shortage of new artists offering what might be described as 'indie-friendly' takes on a huge variety of sounds, and increasingly the tendency has been to incorporate those many influences into songs that reference – but remain separate from – their parent genres. But one problem with many of these artists is that they (consciously or otherwise) invite direct comparison with the purer forms of the genres they're associated with, a fact that has occasionally given rise to accusations of appropriation and watering down. Salem's recreation of dirty south hip-hop in lo-fi, distortion-fucked form has attracted as much criticism as it has adulation, as has the sunken R&B of How To Dress Well and James Blake, as well as Jamie Woon's patchy soul-pop, which somehow ended up associated with dubstep despite its maker's insistence that it was anything but.

Wild Beasts are clearly well-versed in these genres and more; in the lead up to this album's release they've mentioned taking inspiration from artists as far apart as John Coltrane, Steve Reich and synth retrofuturist Oneohtrix Point Never, and the songs on Smother, in their delicate understatement, could certainly be said to form part of that grand lineage. (An interesting aside: Oneohtrix's Dan Lopatin owes a great deal musically to Reich, who in turn has stated more than once that Coltrane was a great inspiration on his own pieces.) And they're also steeped in soul and R&B, defined by a low-key sense of drama that only very occasionally tips over into the histrionics of yore. The rippling backdrop to 'Burning' lends it a desolate calm that could fit neatly onto Animal Collective's pastoral Feels. But rather than musically over-referencing any of the sounds that went into the making of Smother, its greatest strength is that is fully incorporates them all into a sound that couldn't be anyone other than Wild Beasts. The result is a sensuous and lithe, but very deliberate, style of songwriting: knowing, dark and subtly affecting. It's the knowledge Smother effortlessly conveys - everything is there because it needs to be, and because the band have decided it ought to be - that makes it Wild Beasts' finest album to date, and in turn makes them one of the UK's finest bands. Quietly though, of course.

Nick
May 9, 2011 6:49pm

What a wonderfully written and spot-on review. Kudos, Mr Gibb.

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Nick@BC
May 9, 2011 11:00pm

Beautiful writing that somehow captures Wild Beasts music.

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Joe
May 10, 2011 8:32am

It's definitely an improvement on the incredibly overrated previous album, and I'm glad they've got rid of all the thin guitar pedal effects and created a nicer sound, but they still can't really write consistently strong songs. The songs give the appearance of having interesting structures when actually it's just that the choruses are not strong enough to be distinguishable from the verses.

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Ted G
May 10, 2011 11:20am

I think it's a beautiful record. They've morphed quietly and very naturally from rough around the edges intelligent but novelty-ish art-pop to restrained, reflective and emotive ambient rock. I say that but, crucially, while it's a textured album it's still 'catchy' with memorable grooves and melodies. My anxiety about the album was that with intimacy they'd lose melodocism but I'm finding myself humming the tunes in my head all the time. They're subtler than the tunes on 'Two Dancers' but no less affecting. My mate thinks thinks the production could be even better and with someone like Brian Eno at the reigns they do something even more special than this. But I've no problems on that front. They just ooze class and sensuality. I saw them at the Brudenell on Sunday and the way they were swaying and feeling the grooves on stage it was like a slow orgasm unfolding before your eyes. They really were tremendous. The only track I'm not feeling especially is 'Burning'. Just doesn't have the warmth in terms of sound as the other tracks.

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John Calvert
May 10, 2011 11:19pm

Brilliant review.

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philT
May 11, 2011 7:33am

In reply to Joe:

"The songs give the appearance of having interesting structures when actually it's just that the choruses are not strong enough to be distinguishable from the verses."

exactly. but worse than that they have stripped away all semblance of edge resulting in an even less interesting sound than elbow.

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Rory Gibb
May 11, 2011 1:25pm

In reply to philT:

@Joe and @philT - "their popularity has continued to grow as their music has increasingly thrown off any regard for what the listener ought to desire. Which, when you consider that the group have become stranger and stranger over that period, is a real achievement in a world where pop choruses rely on hideously overwrought dynamics and radio-friendly production tricks."

The lack of distinction between verses and choruses, that sense of a single constant groove, is precisely what makes this record so special. Complaining about not being able to distinguish chorus from verse seems a strange issue with a record that doesn't ever set out to be a verse-chorus pop record. It's far more subtle than that, and to its credit remains accessible.

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Joe
May 12, 2011 4:00pm

In reply to Rory Gibb:

It has a nice sound running through it for the most part, and as I mentioned it's an improvement of the last one, but the songs definitely meander and I don't think that's just to serve the 'groove'. I also think there's a big problem with how much people are focussing on the lyrics when they're actually at the same level as Russell Brand with his piss-poor anachronisms, only with added alliteration which apparently elevates it to poetry.

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Jack The Pen
May 12, 2011 4:49pm

Oh come come. Won't someone stand up and say they miss the camp, pomp and hysteria of the first one?

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Saif
May 12, 2011 8:54pm

Agree. It's their best. But I feel that they will have to take a totally different direction the next time.

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Jess
May 13, 2011 7:30pm

In reply to Jack The Pen:

Beautiful review. I must say I agree with Jack The Pen somewhat. I am still lamenting the cabaret of the debut. However, it was necessary to control their hysterics and in turn they've created a beautiful, sensual album.

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clay
Sep 22, 2011 8:40pm

In reply to Ted G:

I am so glad that the review acknowledged the track "Burning. @ Ted G: I'm sorry but please revisit this song, specifically the 1:43 mark. If after doing so, you find the song still to be lacking, then we will have to agree to disagree. The song reminds me somehow of a slowed down, scratched up take on "Cutup Piano and Xylophone" by Fridge. Those beautiful bells and bleeps at 1:43, which thankfully recur, somehow capture the best of Telefon Tel Aviv in one succinct theme. In doing so, this song charts an alternate path to the aesthetic condition of the techno sublime - one which relies less on the obvious trope of "information as complex pattern" than early-00's ambient electro.

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