Ingredients for one career makeover: Take one disenfranchised solo singer. Must be seeking his own sound (suitably ‘fresh’). Add to this one dance ‘svengali’ for added credibility. Throw in a host of assorted dance beats, jazzy/funky breaks, retro stylings and esoteric lyrics. Leave to simmer under a host of misguided delusions. Well, it worked for Kylie, why not here?
The idea of pairing vocalist (from Belgium art noiseniks dEUS) Tom Barman, with dance music’s techno producer CJ Bolland (best known for the Big Beats of Sugar Is Sweeter) – also from Belgium – must have seemed to be an inspired one on paper, but in reality it lacks the promises it threatens. Barman’s influences for the creation of this project came from his love of DJ Shadow and breakbeat, (a far cry from the disjointed edgy alt-rock from Deus) but it feels more like a faceless exercise in studio noodling. Block-Rockin’ Belgium beats anyone?
Recorded over a period of 3 years, with a distinctly filmic feel (Barman has written and directed his own movie Any Way The Wind Blows, from which a couple of the tracks here stem from) it can’t help but suffer from ageing badly. Building a collage of loops, sampled funk, and inane repeated phrases (“sound is powerful, rhythm is deified”) this seems to be an exercise in predictability with leftfield lyrical nonsense to spook things up. Vocals are mashed through effects and the beats scamper along at a funky, if unremarkable pace with a dull familiarity.
Calling to mind INXS‘s Michael Hutchence‘s dalliance with experimental dance beats (with his over-looked Max Q project), this is an uneasy alliance between two distinct worlds. Closest in feel would be Beck (circa Midnite Vultures) Jim White, the white-boy awkwardness of David Byrne (on The Pick Up) the downhome electro blues of Alambama 3 or any host of alt-Americana indie heroes and villains.
But whereas those artists had their own voice and sound, this feels like a Euro-boy looking longingly over ‘the pond’ trying to assimilate into an alien culture, and failing. Warning! When an artist starts wearing a stetson hat who isn’t performing country music, beware! If nothing was more telling of a career breakdown, then why not wear a dress like Kevin Rowland? There is an element to ‘cool’ that doesn’t require trying. Barman is positively straining at the leash not to break into a sweat with these dull funk workouts. Nothing is shocking. The delivery is deadpan and droll. The beats are pedestrian and lacking any kick of invention.
It’s only on Summer’s Here, that scuttles along on an electro-lounge tip, built around a breezy Blue Note sample with electronically sweetened vocals and the minimalist shimmer of Buttburner that the collaboration hints at something interesting. French Movies features sultry femme Francais (natch) laughably louche vocals set to an scuzzed electro-minimalist backing plundered, seemingly, from a Gary Numan track. Edgy organ riffs stutter and stumble, guitars are clipped and funky but never threaten any sense of drama or tension.
Similarly Barman’s voice never reaches the peaks and troughs of his work with Deus, and seems too mannered, in love with adopting a sleazy pose, rather than anything memorable, and comes across as constrained in this alien landscape. Bolland’s signature hard, uncompromising beats also take a softening into something altogether more lazy and inoffensive.
The album ultimately lacks cohesion or personality and has any moments of groove dulled by self-consciously lame poseur lyrics and uninspired delivery. It seems the collaboration was not an easy one to the detriment of both. Belgium waffles.