At his best, Tom Jenkinson is capable of music of transcendent brilliance. There are moments on nearly every Squarepusher album that floor me with their dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin mixture of grace, melody and virtuosity.
Sadly, those magic moments are becoming increasingly rare, as Jenkinson appears to become captivated by his own ego. Famed mostly for his nutty, jazz-fusion-influenced take on drum’n’bass, his recent releases suggest a flailing around for direction. Solo Electric Bass (2009) was a low point of indulgent tedium. Shobaleader One is a marked improvement, but is largely a pointless exercise in cheesy nostalgia for late ‘70s/early ‘80s vocodered jazz-funk grooves. And you know what? He’s forgotten the grooves.
This reviewer has always harboured a big soft spot for vocoders and roboticised voices, however, and Shobaleader One does have its moments. One of those is right at the start: ‘Plug Me In’ dares to introduce a harmonic line that imparts a deep sense of melancholy, even as it’s knowingly uttering the lines: “Synchronise your soul/Maybe that’s how we roll.” Sure, those Gallic kings of retro cool, Air, have been here before, but the flavouring is subtly different.
Its other highlights are ‘Frisco Wave’, an under-achieving but appealingly breezy easy loll that makes great use of ancient keening synth sounds; and the grand finale, all seven minutes of ‘Maximum Planck’. This exercise in heavy riffing features a particularly cool chord sequence and morphs into a pummeling thrash reminiscent of King Crimson.
Cool, but not enough to redeem the album. Elsewhere, ‘Laser Rock’ is a synth-guitar jerk-off that’s evokes the kind of audio stink that Todd Rundgren’s Utopia would have given off in the late ‘70s without actually sounding like that band. Most of the remaining tunes sound under-baked, and while all of them contain some enjoyable touches, on the balance, this is a project that’s more annoying than it is enjoyable.
It’s time for Jenkinson to take a long break, and reconsider his entire approach. He could start by considering his attitude to sound itself: apart from his brilliant ‘Red Hot Car’ track (2001), he has continued to pump out recordings that are so lo-fi that there is little sonic joy to be found on them. Shobaleader One is no exception: the sound is horribly thin, and there’s virtually no bass definition at all. Odd, when you consider that Jenkinson is, first and foremost, a bass player! By giving some attention to the sonic detail of his music, the artist might just find some inspiration in the rhythms and textures that he remains blind to at the moment. GARY STEEL
MUSIC = 3
SOUND = 1