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Jam City
Dream A Garden Albert Freeman , April 14th, 2015 11:39

Dance and experimental producers crossing over into pop territory is nothing new, but the dismissive response given by underground critics and listeners to those who make the jump sometimes ignores talents who were never comfortable in the club's confines to start. Bass music and dubstep have already had their share of crossover success stories, both reluctant – Burial – and those who openly courted it, like James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Darkstar. In the case of Jam City, his initial appearance on the altogether more floor-focused Night Slugs presented a problem that was only exacerbated by the highly-rated Classical Curves, a reaching debut album that opened more questions about his intent than it gave answers. It seemed a deliberate deconstruction of club music, at times more structured and with noticeable hooks, but at other times fragmented and collage-like. Most critics commented on the excellence of his production designs while leaving the more difficult structural issues alone, but in its refusal to commit to dance tropes and the vague references back to pop music within it, there were indications of an artist making early efforts to change paths.

Revisiting Classical Curves now, any sign of what was to come does not appear very clearly, even in spite of Jack Latham's insistence that the production methods for the two albums are in fact similar. What's more remarkable, is that the debut album slid into the world of post-dubstep at all, considering its conspicuous weakness in DJ-friendly material and apparent distance from UK dance music. As the majority of club fare in the UK gradually straightened itself out and brought in heavier sound palettes, it seemed unlikely Latham would follow suit, and the few clues during the extended silence gave strong hints he was making a break. This arrives as Dream A Garden; an attempt to tackle issues of technology and disconnectedness in contemporary society head on via pop structures and instrumentation, including his own guitar and voice.

Like most attempts at radical transformations, it succeeds in some places more than others. Weighing in at 9 tracks and not even 40 minutes in duration, the album makes a jarring transition from its first distorted bars, which take little time to introduce the changes that become obvious as the album plays through. 'The Garden Theives' is a bizarre but deliberate opening, its blasts of distorted electronics sitting uneasily along simple and fluid guitar lines, two sides of the producer's personality colliding awkwardly. The parts suddenly fall in sync on 'A Walk Down Chapel', where his singing makes its first appearance to make a layered, dense track of techno-pop, but not one that would feel so completely out of place earlier in his career, especially in the more electronic portions. It's less deconstructive than his earlier work, but the vocals are buried too far in the mix to make for easy ciphering and the electronic elements still compete strongly for the lead. Elsewhere, excepting 'Crisis', the rhythm parts are pared down to the extreme, and without their weight to counterbalance, what's left is a strange kind of songwriter's manifesto that's both an inversion of his previous work – trading the vague hints at pop for full-blown songs while forcing the electronics into a background role – and, at times, a less-than-fully realised entry into the long history of the experimental pop that Latham is unabashedly referencing.

One can chase the details of the record through the individual tracks, most of which, lighter instrumental interludes aside, easily bear repeated listens, but noting the nicely-wrought explosion of electronically-distorted guitar on 'Unhappy', for instance, or the finely-detailed productions throughout, does not confront the issues most fundamentally facing it. Especially its electronic side is well done, and often well-intertwined with his songs, but the transformation Jam City is attempting to make here is in effect a rather conventional one, and his chosen means for doing it – guitar and vocals – amongst the most obvious. A particularly relevant example in this case would be the nearly simultaneous emergence of industrial music and punk rock in the mid-70s, both of which were highly politically radicalised and originated from similar social levels, but the former of which, while remaining more marginalised, actually made a more accurate prediction of future sociopolitical and technological developments and thus remained contemporary far longer via its embrace of new technical possibilities as means of expression.  

The history of dance music from disco to techno shows clearly the effectiveness of political messages placed in more dancefloor contexts. Likewise, the history of pop shows any number of artists who traded more experimental and oblique means of sending messages for the same instruments Latham has chosen, in many cases with equally mied results. Jam City may have been avoiding direct political messages in his dance tracks and obsessing in surface detail, but in swinging so radically to the opposite side he has left some of his strengths behind. Songcraft, like electronic production, is a learned art, and while the songs here have an admirable honesty and directness, their over-reliance on slogans in their lyrical content and insistence on confronting 'big issues' head on sometimes lacks nuance. Based on recent interviews with the artist, it's clear Jack Latham spent considerable time studying contemporary political and social issues, and while his perspective in interviews does not come across as overly naïve; on his album he sometimes does. What seems lacking is not the idea nor the message, but rather simply the words and effective means to carry it out, and while Dream A Garden finds him making quite large strides towards that end, there's still considerable distance to go before he measures up to past masters.

In referencing this history and attempting to innovate it, Jam City's goals are certainly honest, but it's still a weighty heritage for a new talent to attempt to take on. If his earlier work was noticeable for its refusal to settle down into models, here, aside from the mostly-electronic interludes, he has definitely settled on one but still needs time to perfect his interpretation of it. Dream A Garden is an album full of admirable ideas and clearly coloured by his past, but as a step towards his future, it falls in between its own ambition and true excellence.