Jagwar Ma - Howlin

by Steve Rhodes Rating:5 Release Date:2013-06-10

Electronic two-pieces seem to be back in fashion with recent releases from long-silent heavyweights Daft Punk and Boards of Canada. Australian duo Jagwar Ma, with their debut album Howlin, however, share little in common with these, or indeed with the wealth of electronica artists which have appeared in recent years, mixing the early-80s with contemporary noises. Instead, they have looked towards 60s beat and psychedelia groups, mixed with late-80s drums and rhythms, in developing their own take of electronica, to very different results.

The approach of any artist to an album should be to put one of your strongest tracks first and Jagwar Ma seem have taken heed of this with 'What Love'. It's an upbeat, electronic number with layers of samples, keys and a driving melody which benefits from pounding drums and a rolling bass. The crux, though, is the nice, simple vocal loops which allow the instrumentation to be constructed around it. It's strong opener, with tinges of dub and modern psychedelia in the realms of Yeti Lane-meets-Animal Collective, which sadly most of the remainder of the album fails to live up to.

'Come and Save Me' takes a more relaxed approach, with bass, expansive drums and a distinctly 60s edge, maintaining elements of psychedelia from the opener, like a sun-drenched Grizzly Bear, or Phoenix digging out their Electric Prunes collection. The problem, though, is that the song is missing something and doesn't really launch itself off the ground enough to stand out, with the vocals especially seeming flat and lifeless, adding little to the song. 'Man I Need' suffers the same, opening promisingly with an interesting sampled loop which stays buried throughout but quickly becomes plodding, with monotonous and undistinguished vocals doing little to distract from a fairly dull song. Indeed, it's difficult to get the thought of a calypso re-working of Kasabian's 'Fire' out of the mind and that's surely not a good thing.

'That Loneliness' repeats the pattern, taking the early Saint Ettienne approach of 60s-influenced Rickenbacker guitars to support the keys and samples, but leaving the soul behind. The vocals are not a million miles away from Mark Gardener from Ride, but that is part of the problem, as a fairly inert backing needs a strong vocal and this feels lightweight at best. 'Four', however, is an improvement. Again with a sample-driven opening and the vocal buried as a loop in the melody, the song introduces some nice layers of keys partway through which really should stick around. With Underworld more of an influence, though, it sounds dated, like it could have featured on Pete Tong's 90s Radio 1 show. It doesn't feel relevant now.

Former single 'The Throw' has a descending vocal, with more than a nod towards Yeasayer in the opening, but truly gets going with the introduction of a decent bassline and a more natural guitar partway through. However, like 'Four', the song sounds very dated, with early-90s baggy a clear influence, especially in the beats, but it still holds together and builds with layers of samples only to frustratingly end with a damp squib, stopping just as the track was starting to go somewhere. The baggy leanings produce some really bad misses. 'Let Her Go' follows the very British tradition of aping The Kinks but combines it with the early, horrific career of Ocean Colour Scene, and a dreary re-imagining of 'Wake Up Boo' and 'Exercise' is dominated by clunky and hideous Pop Will Eat Itself keyboards.

With all these retro fixations, often of dubious origin, it is a very pleasant surprise to hear album closer 'Backwards Berlin', a far more blissful effort which seems to have little in common with much of the album that preceded it. With a looped acoustic guitar at the centre, at times reminiscent of the beginning of The Nightblooms' brilliant epic 'Butterfly Girl', luscious samples and synths, and a playful edge, it is a beautiful song that perfectly suits the vocal which briefly accompanies it. Fitting in well with more recent electronica from artists such as Washed Out and Memory Tapes, there are far more ideas and emotions crammed into this song. It's almost a pity you have wade through the rest of the album to hear it.

Howlin is a disappointing debut from Jagwar Ma, which certainly fails to live up to its title, with too many half-hearted, half-finished songs that lack edge or drive. Thankfully, the album is saved from mundanity by the two excellent tracks that sandwich it, a direction which perhaps the band should have focussed on, rather than stripping the past for ideas. At least it gives the band something to develop and improve upon.

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