Peckham born but Chelmsford, Essex raised, it took the composer/producer Derwin Schlecker, otherwise known as Gold Panda, until the relatively advanced age of 30 to release his first album, 2011’s widely praised Lucky Shiner. It may well be that this late entry into the music business was a blessing in disguise, as his life experience to date was richly expressed in what was one of the most intriguing, emotive electronica records of recent times.
Rather like Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, Gold Panda stands out because he constructs music that relies heavily on samples and beats, yet still manages to retain a warm, organic heart. On Lucky Shiner, his fascination with the sounds and music of the Far East (Gold Panda studied at SOAS) added shimmering, exotic textures to what was essentially a nostalgic trip through its creator’s own personal history and relationships. Recorded while dog sitting for his aunt and uncle, the album’s mood expertly marries these two contrasting influences, with samples ranging from Chinese water music and Indian ragas to the voice of his grandmother asking for help pushing a wheelbarrow.
Two years on, Gold Panda is back with a new album and expectations are understandably high. With song titles like An English House and My Father In Hong Kong 1961, one could be forgiven at first glance for expecting a Lucky Shiner take two. Yet initially, Half Of Where You Live is a little underwhelming in comparison. While Gold Panda’s debut burst instantly into life with the piercing, uptempo atmospherics of You, the opening track here – Junk City II – unfolds slowly, with gentle swathes of sitar giving way to stark, jagged Aphex Twin-like stabs of atonal electronica. It’s still as skilfully and painstakingly constructed as before, but it’s as if he’s making you work a little bit harder.
By the end of second track An English House though, it’s clear Gold Panda’s greatest gift – the ability to build a sonic landscape for his listener to inhabit emotionally – is still very much present and correct. Beginning with the sound of squalling winds and a vocal sample of someone knocking on a door shouting ‘open up’, the subsequent restless, subtly shifting rhythms are masterfully layered and absorbed insidiously into the brain.
Even better is Brazil, released last month as a taster for the album proper. Chronicling Gold Panda’s arrival in Brazil – his penchant to be peripatetic also evidently remains – it palpably captures the excitement and energy of a journey through the streets of a new city being experienced for the first time, with fresh sights and sounds emerging everywhere. Underpinned by a drum pattern with faint but no doubt very deliberate echoes of samba and an insistent chant of “Brazil”, this track sees Half Of Where You Live reach an early peak of storytelling flair.
What comes afterwards is rarely quite as good. We Work Nights builds impressively to a crescendo of warped strings and zither, yet in contrast My Father In Hong Kong 1961’s oriental ambience is a little too formulaic and banal, while Enoshima is strangely shapeless. Yet it all comes together again at the end, with the wistful vocals and elegant pace of Reprise bringing proceedings to a relaxed, contemplative close. Gold Panda has come up with another fine album with some standout moments, but overall Half Of Where You Live doesn’t quite have the coherence or impact of its predecessor.