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Album Of The Week

High-Rise, Low-End: For You And I By Loraine James
Noel Gardner , September 19th, 2019 08:44

Last year's Oram Awards winner Loraine James makes her debut on Hyperdub with a joyous blast of electronically generated melodies and spindizzy beats. Noel Gardner is suitably impressed

photo credit Jase Cooper

Of the multiple reasons why Loraine James’ For You and I is a wonderful album, we are entitled to concentrate on just one: how it sounds. Supplementary context is, though, available: how it centres the producer’s identity, during an often frightening moment of history for particular identities. How it challenges a hegemony long apparent in the music which inspired much of these forty-seven minutes. And the wildcard pick, where the listener exercises another entitlement and maps their own memories and associations onto a work billed as deeply personal.

For You and I is, predominantly, neither high-minded nor solemn: an honest-to-goodness joyous blast of unreasonably pure electronically generated melodies and spindizzy beats pulled from a great many strains of club music. You’re liable to strain a muscle trying to put this in a box, though it shares some common ground with producers like Rian Trainor, Nkisi and Sote, all of whom have also released very good albums in 2019 and who are oft-cited in talk of today’s ‘forward-thinking’ dance. It’s scuzzier than that, though, more impulsive and less stoic, and James’ liking for IDM (both its prettier, ambient side and the one with hypercomplex, abrasive breakbeats) comes consistently through.

The producer has spoken previously about her fandom of the genre being tempered by its overwhelming cis white maleness, so it’s significant that she’s talked up For You and I as an album inspired by her present experience as a queer woman in London (the cover art features the Enfield tower block in which she grew up). Not least because it isn’t really telegraphed in the music or, when they occur, lyrics.

Nevertheless, James’ repeated splicing of ambient trill and furious clatter generates intimacy and euphoria alike, and as such it evokes – for me – some of the raddled messiness of raving when it’s really good. Tinnies wobbling off barely-held-together speaker cabinets, rather than audiophile-perfect soundsystems inside venture capitalists’ hyperfutureworlds (I say all this while not actually being sure if James herself is big on clubbing). A hugely appealing DIY anti-perfectionism pervades almost every track, the same energy as jungle and grime’s first wave, although only occasionally does she dip into that precise sound palette.

James’ debut album Detail came out in 2017, and at the time of writing you can still buy one of fifty CDs pressed from her Bandcamp page. It does however capture the producer’s transition from fidgety IDM tinkerer to the harder-edged, ravier mode found on For You and I, and also features some brief bars from Le3 bLACK, a London MC who James has retained for two tracks here.

On ‘My Future’, it’s more than halfway before he appears, a bed of bonecrack snares and pitchshifted sighs having been laid by this point, but it’s ‘London Ting // Dark As Fuck’ that’s the album’s most visceral and, for my vulgar money, finest moment. Powered by an obscene kickdrum and lush videogame melodies, equal parts Aphex Twin and Terror Danjah, the vocals have been edited so as to remove most trains of thought from line to line – but the exhortation, “look at my skin, dark as fuck,” gobbed out in triumph, stands tall in splendid isolation. The result is a kind of dreamstate effect, where individual parts are understandable but abandon logical progression when chained together. A state also attainable by swerving sleep and staying up late in clubs instead, one might add.

The promotional spiel by label Hyperdub informs us that Le3 bLACK’s lyrics were written with the intention of verbalising James’ intimate thoughts. Again, and not least because he refers to himself in the first person, any regular listener can’t possibly be expected to fit the pieces on their own. I strongly doubt they’re supposed to: the artist who “makes music for themselves” is an old saw now, but this album, made without a fixed idea of who James’ audience might be, makes it feel more than a idle truism.

The album’s other guest vocalist, billed only as Theo, enhances ‘Sensual’ with swooning pipes which sometimes hit not-quite-wordless notes like a blank-eyed Björk as a bassless backdrop wriggles and confounds via reversed, abstractly assembled beats.

This is one of the most prominent themes of For You and I: its ability to conjoin two ostensibly opposing moods and make the result feel logical. On ‘Glitch Bitch’, a brash choice of album opener, the synths are airy and ambient, indicative of James’ enthusiasm for headphoney electronica like Telefon Tel Aviv, while the beats are pell-mell and permanently regurgitating themselves. A sample – what sounds like a bloke with a cockney accent (bit is actually James' girlfriend with her voice electronically pitched down) saying “bitch” with what comes off as distasteful relish – is there primarily to jar, you imagine. ‘Hand Drops’ punctuates drowsy synth washes with dubstep bass weight; ‘Scraping My Feet’, an undulating IDM Sunday stroll upended by an attention-demanding breakbeat and supplementary woodpeckery percussion, ramps up its intensity level via adding layers rather than increasing tempo or volume.

If For You and I serves as a useful reminder that the distinction between cool, contemporary dance music and its dated, out-of-vogue counterpart is wafer-thin, its exhilarating final three songs seal that premise. At under three minutes, ‘Sick 9’ is a brief dalliance with glitch techno; on ‘Vowel // Consonant’, arpeggiated rushes and buckwild drum programming mutates from Jlin-ish post-footwork to rude junglisms; and ‘Words Ears Mouth’ is another one for the ‘sweet melodies / ruff beats’ column, the latter being the full Autechre-dipping-into-breakcore monty.

My introduction to Loraine James came at the start of 2019, in the form of a cassette EP self-effacingly titled Button Mashing. It was very much one of those situations where one becomes a gospel-preaching fan of someone they’d never heard of fifteen minutes ago, and I reviewed it accordingly. Turns out that by this time, Hyperdub had already registered their rather more significant approval and set in motion the process that resulted in this album.

For You and I is consistent in its spirit with the label’s catalogue: often in its sound, too, although in a decade and a half Hyperdub has covered enough ground for this to be nebulous. That spirit, though, manifests itself in a defiant queerness; a grab-bag approach borne of big city multiculturalism; and a clear fascination with, and love of, sound in general.