Start And Complete
Styles: jam band, blues rock, balladry, choir boy, improv, funk, wyrd synths, experimental
Others: Hot Chip, This Heat, Spiritualized, Spring Heel Jack, Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, Eugene Chadbourne, Camberwell Now
About Group is a supergroup of sorts composed of pieces of Hot Chip (Alexis Taylor), Spiritualized (Tom Coxon), This Heat (Charles Hayward), and the UK improv & avant garde journeyman Pat Thomas. With these impeccable membership credentials, the newest full-length from this motley crew, freshly signed to Domino, promises a lot, but finds it difficult to balance a battling brew of cohesion and improvisation. What do they deliver?
The album, Start and Complete, opens with oscilloscope wails that segue none too incongruously into twangy guitar chords, as if Silver Apples (or indeed This Heat) had taken their gear to the dock of the bay at sunset to watch the breakers roll in, and roll back out again. And it is, it seems, a quickly turning tide. No sooner has this intriguing opener introduced the tender timbres and unmistakable melodic tendencies of Taylor to recite a three-line poem (“Married to the sea/ When will you be/ Married to me”) than it withdraws. What this collection starts, it leaves — for better or for worse, depending on the angle — incomplete.
While this sounds like a crestfallen indictment, and is in the sense of musical satisfaction, incompleteness is something of a modus operandi for this album. The songs (and proper songs they are) were penned by Taylor over the last few years and brought to the table as a challenge to the rigorous, methodical, even industrial process of creating dance pop perfection, the process of creating a Hot Chip record. As one half of the core impetus behind Hot Chip, Taylor risked compromise and struck out in a different direction with About Group. The result is, uncannily, a snug kind of come-down partner to Hot Chip: different, but not a world away. About Group resembles Hot Chip chiefly because of Taylor’s unmistakable voice: his trademark lyrical vulnerability is, here, forward in the mix — so prominent, in fact, that at times it threatens to cloy. These pieces are, after all, antidotes of a sort; second track “Don’t Worry,” breaking into a kind of forlorn warning that could be directed at his bandmates, reportedly concerns that he might leave the Hot Chip fold for good.
Taylor has dispelled such concerns. The guy just needed a break. While his lyrical preoccupations remain the same, and the overall tone of the songs could very well be mistaken for takes in a Hot Chip Unplugged special, the crucial difference is in preparation and execution. Start and Complete was recorded in one day at Abbey Road after the scantest demo-tape briefing of each band member. As a result, and perhaps in collusion with the fairly straight-ahead, safe skeletons provided by Taylor, there is hesitance present that at times charms, at times grates. There is no doubt that there is an incredible competence at work in these recordings, but given the backgrounds of the players, perhaps with the exception of Taylor, and the way that this album flirts with improv in its construction, there’s a sense that the band were anxious to gel in a straight-ahead, friendly fashion, largely eschewing dissonance (tonally, conceptually, collectively) and departure from the rhythmic dual carriageway. Thus, and this will be for many a very good thing, there’s little sign of the ‘squeaky-door-music’ and outré freakery readily associated with the improv scene that is the stomping ground for a large chunk of this group.
Thankfully, if one listens closely, there are little flourishes beneath the healthy (if kind of awkwardly adolescent) gloss of the album that prevents it from becoming a glorified jam session between some mates who met down the pub. A solid, swarthy frame of rocky blues and funk (not of the type that is George Clinton’s bag) is riddled with bizarre synth bloops and askew detailing that clearly mark the presence of a mischievously addled and extemporizing consciousness at work, pulling against the dad-music tide that threatens to drown the album. “Lay Me Down” is a highlight in this respect, with a fantastic second chorus harmonizing the titular lyric over a steady, melancholic tent revival organ, reliably swaggering guitar and bass, plus what sounds like R2D2 attempting to preach the gospel from the back pew.
Elsewhere, twee sketches, vehicles for lyrical whimsies, deflate the big-tent feel between the highlights. One of these worthy uprights is “A Sinking Song,” which matches Charles Hayward’s tribal drumming and shimmering cymbals with legato organ and phasing synths. It’s simple, direct, and a perfect enactment of Taylor’s lullabies and a cornerstone of what seems to be a maritime thread running through the album. But again, so short; just like the opener, these revelatory moments are left incomplete, and if that counts as thematic enactment, it’s very frustrating. More plausibly, there isn’t enough steam for this group to jam about in the original compositions.
This would seem to make sense considering that the absolute highlight of the album is a reprise of Terry Riley’s late-60s (but only recently released) tape-music’d reprise of Harvey Averne’s soul classic “You’re No Good.” Clocking in at a hefty 11 minutes, it gives ample room for About Group to flex their collective muscle. Their version rocks and rollicks, with the practiced — but unrehearsed — jam machine laying a down the line with a touch of the swagger that informs ESG’s unrelated (?) song of the same name. In places the groove makes way for the palette of strange, beguiling shimmers that in other tracks breathe beneath the mainline, allowed here to ventilate out in the open. It is finally a compelling revisioning of a revisioning that takes apart what was made incomplete in the first place.
The title track matches the breezy keys smeared across the album with bursts of martial drums and plinking extended techniques on piano, and again it’s the improv imp having the best time, making the lyrical content and straight-down-the-line instrumentation that beds the remainder seem anodyne, nay, incomplete to the point of redundancy: in an inversion of the norm, it’s the wheedling voice and jam-session vibes that seem the rough-cut edge of the piece, the bits that stick out like a sore thumb demanding to be power-sanded away.
Incompleteness in a pejorative sense reigns on the album. It’s a patchy affair that only sporadically attracts because it fails to recognize the strengths that lurk like lint among the well-woven warp & weft of its own making. In racking up a stellar cast and with what could have been a good working concept as a motor, it fails to complete what it starts. But then again, no promises have been made, and what promise do supergroups formed as an excuse for a working holiday hold forth? Taken in small bites, there are great moments here, but you’re unlikely to clean your plate and ask for seconds for all 14 courses. I for one will be hanging out for dessert, but I don’t imagine I’ll be invited for dinner again.
01. Married To The Sea (a)
02. Dont Worry
03. With Each New Day
04. Repair Man
05. Lay Me Down
06. A Perspective
07. There’s A Way To End This Run Of Doubt
08. A Sinking Song
09. Nothing But Words
10. You’re No Good
11. Rough And Smooth
12. Start And Complete
13. Dreamt I Saw You Late Last Night
14. Married To the Sea (b)