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Chad Valley
Equatorial Ultravox David Peschek , June 29th, 2011 09:34

Apres Toro Y Moi, le deluge. Sorry, couldn't resist that. Funny too that Neon Indian should have tried to throw doubt on chillwave's validity as a scene: there's just so much of it at the moment, and whether or not the artists cohere in ways beyond an obvious aesthetic hardly matters in the face such an avalanche (sorry – should really be a 'tsunami' to extend the metaphor correctly) of releases. 'Chillwave' (see also: 'shoegaze', with which it shares significant DNA) is of course a horrible construction, but it has at least a sense of its own ridiculousness, unlike 'hypnagogic pop', which is a little too precious to bear. (Clearly HP and CW are loosely the same thing, right? Maybe they could have a scene-off?) Anyone really worried about such things should get themselves over to the brilliantly obsessive Hipster Runoff blog immediately, and maybe go easy on the coffee.

Whatever it's called and irrespective of whether those on the bleeding edge deem it over (because arbiters of cool will always be divided into those who resist dialogue with anything approaching the mainstream, as if they operated in an impossible aesthetic vacuum, and those who get a kick from seeing it gradually infected by the margins), the lustrous pulse of Chad Valley's second release, a seven track mini-album, is very of the moment. Chad Valley is Hugo Manuel, also part of the band Jonquil, who belong to their own little scene thank-you-very-much, the Oxford based Blessing Force collective. He is set apart from the majority of artists crowding the giddily-extended chillwave-or-whatever moment not only by his Britishness, but also by his meltingly gorgeous rich tenor vocal. Even buffeted by the oceanic reverb he favours, it gives his songs a powerful, deep-blue, happy-sadness, inflecting them with a peculiarly English (new-) romanticism.

Where, say, Washed Out's Ernest Greene makes the best of a comparatively weak vocal by massing it into a heady choral smear, and, say, the fragile voice of Toro y Moi's Chaz Bundick sounds great in lush, bottom-end heavy settings, Manuel's voice has real power and depth and he uses every bit of his range. It's the old trick of voice as another instrument, but done with real deftness here, and to hold back when you don't have to is a very different decision than spinning gauzy volume out of comparatively little, however superficially similar the results. Manuel could quite easily foghorn all over the underwater-disco throb of 'I Want Your Love'; instead the banked vocals shimmer from within the mix, held back. Professing desire with detachment, it recalls a similar trick patented by Chic, high priests of vocal detachment, and most powerfully deployed on their own 'I Want Your Love'.

I'm not saying Chad Valley is that good – very little is that good, after all; neither do these songs have the infinitely fascinating, genuinely troubling emotional ambiguity of the best Chic productions. But there is something delicious in the restraint displayed here. What Manuel seems to be doing, as the fuzzy chorus of 'I Want Your Love' rises up around you like steam, is making you feel what he's singing almost before you hear it. In 'Fast Challenges' the effects are subtle enough that you forget how unlistenable anything with autotune or vocoder has become, and marvel instead at how they weave through the tantalising tension and not-quite-release of the track.

So, heat-haze reverie is very much the order of the day. Chad Valley reminds me of lots of things, not least of which is really good ecstasy (RIP). To be specific: making out on really good ecstasy. That's no surprise when you consider Manuel's love of R&B (he's done a bunch of re-edits of reasonably recent stuff you can download here, among them a take on R Kelly's 'Number One' that sounds like something by How To Dress Well). Often Equatorial Ultravox takes you further back though: Reach Lines makes me think both of Cherrelle and Alexander O'Neal's 'Saturday Love' and the luscious liquid nitrogen moon-funk that Swain and Jolley created for Imagination – funk so lubricious its total lack of sweat and dirt becomes a virtue. Other random things surfacing in Chad Valley's digital bubblebath: Richenel's 'L'esclave endormi', a wildly gay, late 80s one-off 4AD oddity (queenly flourish absent here, though); the way it's not hard to imagine closer 'Shapeless' slipping into a Larry Levan set at the Paradise Garage; the fact that saying the swoony, seemingly aching-with-regret heartbreak of 'Acker Bilk' makes me think of 10cc - or 'Surf's Up' - produced by Ford & Lopatin is insanely hyperbolic (isn't it?).

However you take it, Equatorial Ultravox is an intoxicatingly rich listen. It should be catnip for remixers because there's so much here: trailing EU is 'Now That I'm Real (How Does It Feel?', a boy-girl duet which recalls the melancholic deadpan of the Human League; its remixes predictably but logically draw out the presiding twin impulses, as Blessing Force associates Trophy Wife make it even more danceable while San Francisco's Courtship abstracts it into ambient wash. More than that, though, there are big, brilliant sophisticated pop songs here - graceful, and insistent despite their bewitching modesty. Pop music, indeed, as you might hear it in a dream.