, June 1st, 2012 06:54
Classical Curves. The name puts me in mind of some Ballardian auto-erotic daydream, of polished chrome surfaces and spoilers streamlined for minimal resistance, of human design striving to mimic the efficiency and fluidity of nature, of bodies sliding smoothly across warm leatherette. But where Crash's protagonist was fixated on messy and organic unpredictabilities, Jack Latham's debut album as Jam City deals in hard physics, mathematics and fixed angles. So the spatter of blood forms a perfect 36 degree vector away from the body, which is seatbelted rigid 10 degrees off the vertical, even as a stray piece of steering wheel pierces the chest cavity at a right angle, drives into the uphostery behind and breaks off, leaving a geometrically jagged edge. And so on. The trajectories of individual lines throughout Classical Curves are picked out in sharp definition against relatively spare backgrounds, leaving the inner working of its tracks laid bare, like a running motor encased within a glass box.
Like a particularly persistent and unspectacular Halley's comet, the age old analogue/digital debate swings back around to dazzle dance music approximately once every seventeen seconds, and with very few proponents actually bringing new arguments to the table (the usual 'analogue warmth' notion is notoriously difficult to quantify, beyond subjective personal experience). So in an age of back-to-basics rhetoric, it's rather gratifying that Classical Curves' meticulous construction screams that massive processing power and natty design software must have been required somewhere along the line. On recent single 'The Courts', which also crops up here, Latham offered a C.A.D-assisted view of the house/techno/dubstep hinterland. Hinged around a martial synchronised kick/handclap rhythm, the listener's viewpoint occasionally took a guided lurch right into the track's superstructure, bamboozled by the screech of shoe on gym floor and cheese-wire synth flourishes. To return to Latham's debut album as car factory, there's a sleek assembly-line precision and near-architectural amount of care put into these eleven models that it finally churns out.
Which isn't to say it lacks either the human touch or a certain element of chaos. Sonically, there's plenty of both. The parts may be carefully pieced together, but they're rarely squeaky clean: sub-bass is pebble-dashed with grit and sticky hunks of asphalt; snares don't so much hit as detonate, sending debris skating through the mix. Where glassy sheets of synth and rhythmic artefacts provide a framework around which everything else pivots, the messy real world is introduced via sampled sound from elsewhere. 'The Courts' takes its name from the squeak of a basketball player's shoes, used as a motif across its length. 'Hyatt Park Nights Pt. 1' is all engine grease and shredded plate steel, the accumulated sounds of its environment serving as darker embellishments to a bubbly house rhythm. The sunset cityscape evoked by 'Backseat Becomes a Zone While We Glide' - in title and sound, reminiscent of the eighties cop cruising fantasies of Dan Lopatin or James Ferraro - is pockmarked by gunshots, shouts and breaking glass, suggesting trouble in palm tree paradise.
The willowy drones that usher in 'B.A.D' promise similar nocturnal naughtiness, but rather than rolling around the neighbourhood, top down, it's held in place by oppressive bassweight and bare-bones percussion. The overall effect is something akin to a Wiley eski riddim divested of its propulsive power and left to degrade in a skip. The influence of Stateside hip-hop and electro, however, is never too far from earshot - the dry plunk of a Roland drum machine (or similar analogue) draws the track into a similar transatlantic dialogue as that of fellow UK producer Logos. Like the latter's weightless grime/electro creatures, it's an appreciably subtle crossover region, and quite apart from prevailing current tropes: there's not a Lex Luger-style hi-hat clickety-clack to be heard here. It's only made explicit in closer 'The Nite Life', featuring the opiate tones of US rappers Main Attrakionz, who chat motivational slogans and obsolete games consoles over a cloudy backdrop.
After a promising start, London's Night Slugs label has frequently felt like more whimper than bang, with many releases rather too closely hewn to the imprint's own emerging formula. Latham has been the one to buck that trend. As both joker and ace in the label's deck, he's proved slippery and difficult to keep a handle on, moving from the gloriously splattery carnivalesques of his 'Ecstasy Refix' to grime-via-house on 'Arpjam', making calls at slurred dirty south hip-hop ('Magic Drops') and limpid synth/bass workouts a la HudMo ('Waterfalls'). With Classical Curves he's reached closer still towards the taut digi-blizzards of Mohawke's Butter or Rustie's Glass Swords. But where those two producers specifically set out to push the limits - to ask, how much is too much? - Latham reins those wilder excesses in. Where the beat was distorted to grotesque extents on Glass Swords, there's a lean and low-slung sense of funk that runs through most tracks on here, in line with previous club cluster bombs 'Magic Drops' and 'Arpjam'.
So does Classical Curves transfer the promise of those earlier EPs across into a full-length album listen? Yes, and it does so rather well. For a start, there's a great deal of variety across its length, and never does Latham lapse into formula (though, to be fair, it would be reasonable to ask what that formula could even be, given his commitment to shapeshifting). Just when you presume you've got a handle on Jam City, he throws a curveball like squeaky jazz parade 'Strawberries' into the mix. That said, given the range he's already covered, there was always the risk of Classical Curves trying to pack too many ideas into too short a space of time. That problem is managed largely by a comparatively small textural palette and the hit factory's attention to detail - each track is a different model but it's audibly welded together from the same few parts. As a result, it's subtly suggestive of a pop songwriting approach, as if Classical Curves is previewing some future form of instrumental chart music, currently incubating and soon to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
Crucially for a UK producer making inroads into a region already saturated with copyists, though, Classical Curves is inventive. Rhythms are mutable, Latham's ear for a melodic motif is appreciably off-kilter and, though house (as current UK dancefloor vogue) is rarely far away, it's never explicitly referred to. These well-balanced assemblages of fine-sanded glass, rubber, faux-leather and greased pistons always sound like Jam City tracks, rather than cobbled together facsimiles of existing styles. They make for one of the most interesting album-length listens to come from a UK club producer in a while, and serve as a reminder that many sub-heavy dancefloors post-dubstep ought often to be demanding more for their money. It'll be interesting to see where Latham takes things from here, but it's probably not worth attempting to predict.