M J Cole - Sincere
Yeah well, with all my equivocations over the guy I simply had to buy it, didn't I? And I'm glad I did, because it is a good album. Not an excellent album, and certainly not the definitive 2-step statement it would like to be, but very good nonetheless.
"Introduction" in particular, with its effervescent piano cadence and shimmering strings competing with a roaring-bass dub mix of "Sincere", is the most surprising piece of music I've hear all year, a stunning combination of the brutal with the beautiful that takes the "lush darkside" tendency of a lot of garage tracks (see Zed Bias's "Neighbourhood" in particular) to its logical conclusion. The album never quite matches that intensity after that, although the second half of "MJ FM Interlude", which overlays the similarly amazing dub mix of "Crazy Love" with an effusive ragga chant, surpasses it for pure fun.
Apart from those and the slamming "Slum King" (which is reminiscent of his early work with Ramsey & Fen), Sincere asks the listener to take Cole on his own generally refined terms. "Tired Games", with its politely beeping bass and smooth saxaphone, is good Brand New Heavies, distinctive more for the gorgeous vocals of Elizabeth Troy (she of the wracked vocals on Y-Tribe's "Enough Is Enough") than for its rhythmic science. Troy sings on a number of tracks here and is unfailingly brilliant - the best English diva since Caron Wheeler? She's so versatile! Lusty on "Tired Games", android-like on "Attitude", flighty and capricious on "Crazy Love", she makes each track her own, but each time its a different Elizabeth.
Strangely, apart from "Tired Games", the first part of the record is quite dark and ambiguous. "Attitude" is a wonderfully unstable number with an oozing bass line that reminds me of all that dark dub-jungle from around '94 - Back 2 Basics' "Horns 4 '94", anyone? "Bandelero Desperado", with its haunting female gasp, has a similar air of creeping uncertainty to it, although the laidback ragga rap on top somewhat ruins the effect. Non-hyper ragga chanting seems a bit pointless to me, and on top of Cole's blatant home-listening productions it seems to merely emphasise the lack of energy within the music.
"Crazy Love" coalesces into being a couple of tracks in, and comfortably holds its own as the best "real" track on the album by far. Listening to it, Cole's primary talent becomes devastatingly clear - recontextualising "authentic" sounds (here the pizzicatto strings) within an artificial, rhythmic setting, twinking and tweaking their resonances until they shimmer and burst around your eardrums with heartbreaking clarity. If there's been a single more purely aurally pleasing this year, I'd like to know what it is.
From then onwards it's fairly smooth sailing. "Sanctury" has been criticised for being a "Sincere" retread, which it is, although to me it uses all the tricks employed on the latter - the amorphous blur stringpad arrangement, sashaying percussion, judiciously sampled female vocals and clever decision to drop the 2-step for a four on the floor beat at the end - to even greater effect, capturing a certain fragility that the more unambiguously pleasure-centric "Sincere" just falls short of. Both are desperately superficial, like a cloud of production icing with no cake to actually sink your teeth into, but at the same time their luscious deepness (particularly "Sincere", with its amniotic bass that ebbs and flows around your ears and orgasmic string-gasp tidal swells) provides endless delight.
In between you get "I See", a quite lovely downtempo track that is most notable for Elizabeth coming good on the hints of Kate Bush in "Enough Is Enough". The delicate, high vocals and arty lyrics ("Come to me, my beloved beau", for starters), coupled with Cole's cold arrangement, could easily make this a track from The Hounds Of Love. "Strung Out", an instrumental, string quartet-led companion is a bit pretentious, and by its nature is something I really shouldn't like, but has a similar mournful quality that I find highly appealing.
The excitable acid jazz of "Rough Out Here", with its "soulful" vocals courtesy of "Concept Noir", does annoy me however, despite its generally winning string arrangement. Luckily, it's followed by "Slum King", which with its hard beats and infectious keyboard riffs is pretty much the only track here that sounds like UK Garage in a particularly meaningful sense. If all of Cole's tracks sounded like this he wouldn't be such a distinctive artist, but in the context of everything else going on here it goes down a treat, and the album probably could have done with a few more moments like it.
"Hold On To Me" is another good Troy track: basically a less anxious "Crazy Love", it's pretty good proof for the fact that I'm pretty much going to love anything that Elizabeth sings over. Actually, rather ironically, aspects of the arrangement, particularly the beginning with its sample snippets weaved into a compelling sort of groove, remind me of Roni Size... after I've continually tried to attack that oh so common comparison. If I was Cole I'd have left it there, but instead we get the latin-tinged "Free My Mind", which doesn't add that much to proceedings in my opinion, but if you like that NuYorcian Soul/soulful live house sound, you'll probably find it inoffensive.
For me the strengths Sincere proudly displays are that of an expert producer. Cole's beats are usually not particularly challenging, nor his basslines corrosive, but everything is always expertly programmed and arranged, with each element building off eachother in a perfect example of audio construction. For that reason, he's always at his best when he is in his most coldly technical mode, weaving together disparate elements into a glossy, glassy whole that stuns purely by its flawless packaging.
Conversely, he's at his worst when he sounds like he's allowing one idea to overly dominate the song (the rap in "Bandalero Desperado", the song itself in "Rough Out Here" and the latinate vibe of "Free My Mind"), because it all sounds too deliberate. As an album, the whole thing can be tiresomely polite, although notably the attempts to counteract this (see the first half of "MJ FM Interlude", which seeks to recreate the party vibe of pirate garage radio stations) often come off sounding clumsy and forced.
Anyway, I'm pleasantly surprised by the general high quality of the work on offer here, although I'd hardly say it's the garage album to get. Try a compilation like the Artful Dodger's Ministry Of Sound release, or "Pure Silk - The Third Dimension"; and besides, Craig David or Shanks & Bigfoot's albums might well be better. But if you've liked stuff you've heard by the guy before, I'd say that this is the best album-long representation of his style that could have been hoped for, all things considering.