The short lived ‘chillwave’ movement that emerged in the late 2000s, mostly comprised of solo, bedroom artist/producers seeking to create their own nostalgic ’80s pop rock and shoegaze-influenced sonic worlds, was predominantly a US-based phenomenon, with key players such as Washed Out (aka Ernest Greene) and Neon Indian (Alan Palomo) hailing from such unlikely outposts as Perry, Georgia and Denton, Texas.
UK electronic experimentalist James Alexander Bright – now thankfully divested of his previous soubriquet, Hairy Hands – is an example of how the ethos of chillwave did occasionally establish a foothold beyond the American South, in his case, rural Hampshire. First emerging back in 2013, when chillwave was already past its peak, Bright’s early records as Hairy Hands were murkier, more lo-fi recordings, with the influences of James Blake and Burial clearly apparent, although the flickers of a very English pastoralism that characterise all his work were already in evidence too. But by 2018’s Mallorca and Strange Folk EPs, the sound had evolved into a bolder, richer and more energetic style, combining the psychedelic-tinged, dreamy tones of the chillwave artists with the beats-driven, greater urgency of Caribou and Four Tet.
Headroom sees this progression continue to develop apace. Opening track Go sets out Bright’s stall straight away, with a sunny, liquid guitar line accompanied by soulful, mellifluous vocals that bring to mind Jungle’s eponymous 2014 debut. Next up is Outside, which sticks closer to a Caribou-style cerebral electro-pop template, but Lead Me Astray feels bigger and brasher again, with its bouncy, crunching ’80s synths and those new, more in your face vocals.
Four tracks in though, the album starts to shift in mood. Cala Llenya and Dancing With The Birds feel much more mellow and contemplative, with the beats pared back in favour of blissed out acoustics, with woodwind textures often at the fore. Cala Llenya in particular sets the tone for much of the rest of the record by putting that quintessential ’80s instrument the saxophone centre stage: an unwelcome prominence it rarely relinquishes thereafter. This means the potentially promising trip hop groove of 6am and sinuous funk of the closing Friends (Lovers Lost) are overshadowed by unfortunate but inevitable recollections of derided former purveyors like Kenny G and the late Guru Josh.
An illustrator by day, Bright’s music feels curiously imprecise in comparison, with kaleidoscopic layers that somehow fail to coalesce into a tangible whole or memorable moments. It’s an undeniably pleasant background to a warm summer’s day. But, like the output of many of the chillwave notables it resembles, once Headroom has finished playing, precious few details remain lodged in the brain.