I don't know if it's cool or not to say this, but the first thing I thought after putting on Manitoba's new album, Up in Flames,
Having liked his debut, Start Breaking My Heart,
quite a bit, I expected pastoral tones similar to "People Eating Fruit," or a gentle companion to the almost machine-to-machine lullaby "Children Play Well Together," or more of the skittering synths of "Dundas, Ontario." Dan "Manitoba" Snaith, also a mathematician, had, with Start Breaking My...,
made something engaging, but antiseptic and more rigid than compatriots Four Tet and Boards of Canada. It was enjoyable but not a joy. A bit too calculated and too composed, leaving little room to roam.
Up in Flames
arrived the same day as You Forgot It in People,
the new release (recently reviewed in Neumu
) from fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene. While excited to check out Broken Social Scene's inspired indie rock, Manitoba won the toss. From the start though, it seemed a mistake had been made and that You Forgot It in People
had snuck its way on.
A very catchy, very upbeat, not-very-electronic-y sounding song filled the room with guitars, horns, crashing drums and a guy singing simple lyrics, voice gliding along with the beat, perfectly.
Checked the sleeves and, indeed, this infectious, melodic, psychedelic piece of power-pop was "I've Lived on a Dirt Road All My Life," the first track off Up in Flames.
By the time it reached the little shuffling beats and keys and effects at the end, I was hooked. Shocked, completely, and loving it. Snaith has managed to produce the most refreshingly sunny set of unbearably energetic songs to be heard in this corner thus far this year.
A year that as events ratchet up 2003's tension notch by notch has provided little to be optimistic about. As great as it is, Up in Flames
is completely out of step with color-coordinated security delineations, with protestors' cries falling upon deaf ears, with bombs over Baghdad. If there's even music to be played right now (another question altogether), shouldn't it be darker fare, like Massive Attack or Aerogramme's latest, the intense Sleep and Release
? That album, with its powerful wall-of-sound guitars and bone-rattling grind, is in many ways a more appropriate soundtrack to the stomach-turning list of crises serving as indefinite backdrop.
Is now the right time to bring into the mix a summery burst of joyous tunes?
Dan Snaith bounds forward with Up in Flames
and it's clear that his new route's taken him through the fertile grounds of late-'60s-to-early-'70s psychedelic rock. Music that was produced alongside assassinations, wars, political lies and deception, and collective doubt and alienation. And also love and inspiration and activism. Juxtapositions, tensions between movements, tectonic shifts in ideals and divisions between the counterculture and the buttoned-down establishment. Leaders stunningly out of step with the people. And the people rising up.
Is now the right time to bring into the mix a summery burst of joyous tunes? Fuck yeah it is.
With both Boards of Canada's challenging Geogaddi
and Four Tet's forthcoming, moodily affecting Rounds,
Snaith's brothers-in-laptops cleared way to explore the dark side. Where those releases are measured implosions, Up in Flames
is a dizzyingly crafted explosion.
The innocence of the music-box melodies in "Crayon" and the exuberance of the grand build of "Bijoux," coming straight from the same sonic fabric that dressed the Beta Band's anthem "Dry the Rain," are exactly right, right now. As is the opening acoustic strumming of "Jacknuggeted," strangely reminiscent, if even for a second, of Modern English's "I Melt With You," and the Brit-rock sibling "Hendrix With Ko" and its reverberating washes of echoed vocals and cheerily looped hand-claps. The free-jazz explorations of the second track, "Skunks," can't even manage to upend the album's consistently great flow.
Up in Flames
was engineered using the same lo-fi computer setup as Start Breaking My Heart.
Listening, it's hard to believe the same man and same machinery had ever produced something as clinical or careful as that previous album. Snaith's new work is loose and impulsive, words not usually associated with the white-gloved image of electronic music producers. The album's 10 songs are also dreamy and, at times, gorgeously raucous. Most importantly, they're hopeful.