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The Road Pt. 1 Josh Gray , September 4th, 2017 08:19

James Lavelle returns alone to the helm of his genre-crossing project, rooting around for a renewed sense of meaning

Since its inception, UNKLE has been the brainchild of Mo’ Wax founder James Lavelle. During the 90s, through both his label and his group, he became adept at redrawing popular perceptions of what could be considered a band, crew or collaborative project. But he was often more of a human phone directory than a musician, reliant on others to create the actual music.

Ironically, considering his talent for roping in collaborators, Lavelle never played particularly well with others. Throughout the first two decades of UNKLE’s existence he struggled with an obvious lack of self-control, much of which grew out of the fairly unprofessional approach Mo’ Wax had been run on. Collaborators, nominal members, friends… all were all pushed away, gradually ceding him the full control he now commands on The Road: Pt. 1.

Musically this is a very good thing. Even the best UNKLE albums sounded fairly disjointed, mainly due to Lavelle’s apparent belief that he always needed another hand on the rudder. Gifted producers like Chris Goss and DJ Shadow lent him their magic touch, but often their styles obscured Lavelle’s own vision. The Road: Pt. 1 still features a tonne of collaboration, both musical and visual (the cover sleeve features 36 pages of original pieces from artists such as Nathan Coley, John Isaacs and David Nicholson), but Lavelle now seems confident running a benevolent tyranny, perhaps thanks to his curation of both the 2014 Meltdown Festival and last year’s Daydreaming… With Stanley Kubrick.

There’s a central theme of persevering through the hardship of journeying into the unknown, which persists even when it strays into more familiar territory. Lavelle meanders through a flurry of styles and textures, some new, others drawn from throughout UNKLE’s history, never staying in any one place for too long. Some of these diversions are dull, especially around the bloated middle section. The self-sung ‘No Where To Run/Bandits’ resurrects the plodding Britpop that reminds the listener just how long it’s been since Psyence Fiction sounded fresh, then hammers it home with a crushingly unsubtle sample of The Pharcyde’s ‘Keep Running’ on the following skit. The ever-shifting ‘Cowboys Or Indians’ fares better, but Elliot Power’s impersonation of 3D from Massive Attack serves as a reminder of the calibre of guest artist UNKLE used to pull in.

There are plenty enough peaks to excuse The Road: Pt 1’s dips, though. ‘Looking For The Rain’ is up there with the best singles Lavelle has ever worked on. Will Malone conjures the spirit of 60s film composers Miklós Rózsa and Elmer Bernstein to provide an epic orchestral sweep, which Lavelle then ingeniously grounds with a haunting fairground organ and Mark Lanegan’s trademark tombstone vocals.

But it’s on the more tender moments that the heart of the album is revealed. Tracks like ‘Farewell’ and ‘(Sunrise Always Comes Around)’, which features a stunning turn from The Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss, drill right down to the emotional core of the record, providing a powerful talisman against the ugly spectres of self-destruction that have threatened to cripple its creator’s potential. There’s a passionate, earnest vibe that spills out to fill any cracks in quality, a window into Lavelle’s soul that somehow opens wider whenever someone else takes the microphone.