Ninja Tune has an incredibly strong line-up for 2012, with formidable releases from Slugabed, The Invisible and Lorn tipping the berg. In this context, Grasscut’s sophomore outing, exploring landscape and memory, too often drifts into superficial escapism.
Unearth clearly follows a geographical way of thinking set out in Andrew Phillips’ and Marcus O’Dair’s 2010 debut, 1 Inch:1/2 Mile (a reference to map scales). If anything, Unearth seems determined to take this to the extreme, with its release accompanied by a book of double-exposed pinhole photography and cassettes (containing a shadow version of the album) buried across the country – a lo-fi nightmare of British hipsterdom. Beyond this, references ranging from TS Eliot to Tennyson, and a guest turn from Robert Wyatt on the wonderfully stripped-down Richardson Road, form part of a serious attempt to engage with the British landscape, carrying on a project begun with 1 Inch:1/2 Mile. Unearth unfolds as a sequence of specific geographical responses, mining a rich tradition of local motifs, tape recordings, samples and live orchestration, and binds it in a soundworld of steampunk electronica.
Most of Unearth’s soundscape relies on a simple layering of material, winding melodic lines and a songcraft that delights in genre-hopping – a combination that has difficulty in balancing overreaching experimentalism and infuriatingly twee music. Standout moments can be found towards the end, on the aforementioned Richardson Road, We Fold Ourselves – Phillips’ voice intertwined with a crackling 1950s recording of legendary contralto Kathleen Ferrier and the bleeding instrumentals of Lights. Reservoir, inspired by a drowned village under Wales’ Lake Vyrnwy, floats in a neutral pastoralism while Pieces, referencing an unfinished flyover in East London, reaches for a kind of resonant geography but ends up with some rather flat minimalist inflections. Unearth’s mashup over-obsession with a collection of influences and admirations, from A Mysterious Disappearance’s muzak homage to Agatha Christie to the contrived TS Eliot references of Blink In The Night (East Coker Version) produce something close to overload.
While Grasscut’s debut made for a dreamy, sonic map, full of fragmented history and the geography of stories, Unearth’s more vocal focus detracts from this. But in any case, the samples-led, organic electronica here may produce intriguing textures – and Phillips’ background as a soundtrack composer is never in doubt – but it is hard work to find anything approaching coherence here.