Monday, 23 July 2018

Laika ‎– Good Looking Blues (2000)

Style: Trip Hop, Downtempo
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Too Pure

01.   Black Cat Bone
02.   Moccasin
03.   T. Street
04.   Uneasy
05.   Good Looking Blues
06.   Widow's Weed
07.   Glory Cloud
08.   Go Fish
09.   Badtimes
10.   Knowing Too Little

Synthesizer, Electric Piano – Guy Fixsen
Trumpet – Matt Barge
Bass – John Frenett
Clarinet – Pete Whyman
Djembe – Lou Ciccotelli
Flute – Louise Elliott
Guitar – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Murphy Fiedler
Vocals – Margaret Murphy Fiedler
Mastered By – Tony Cousins
Mixed By – Guy Fixsen
Producer – Fixsen, Fiedler
Sampler – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Murphy Fiedler
Turntables – Danny Doyle
Written-By, Engineer, Programmed By – Guy Fixsen

To some-- the hip, the jaded-- Laika's third release is likely to seem a bit of a disappointment. And in a way, I guess it is: after the sonic barrage of their first album, its two successors may seem a bit dry. In fact, by some standards, Laika have gone downhill not just since their first album, but since the first 20 seconds of their first album, which were arguably 20 of the most exciting seconds electronic music produced in the 1990s. Consider, for example, the generally shoddy treatment Stereolab has recieved from hipsters regarding their post-Emperor Tomato Ketchup LPs. 
The thing of it is, see, that the phenomenon known as electronic music-- half music and three halves public relations-- has always set itself up as The Future. The Future, of course, is always one step ahead, and this has led to the development of a freakishly malproportioned set of criteria by which electronic music is to be judged: one which values innovation above all other things. Constantly striving to push the envelope (in order to push the product, naturally), electronic music plunges blindly ahead into what so many fawning reviews refer to as "uncharted territory." This is all fine and good, except for one thing: left behind in the neverending move forward lie vast expanses of half, sorta and barely charted territory. 
Few blues singers are criticized for lack of innovation-- they're instead evaluated on their musicianship, songwriting and knowledge of their craft. Meanwhile, electronic music's mainstream has been largely unable to value itself as a tradition to the extent that artists are allowed to explore the nooks and crannies of their own genre. When an album like Good Looking Blues is released-- one that moves towards accessibility-- the general reaction tends towards dismissals of the "I've heard this before" or "Nothing new here" variety. 
Admittedly, Good Looking Blues doesn't seem like much at first-- pretty run-of-the-mill trip-hoppy shit: some loops here, some scratching there, a dash of hip-hop for flavor, shrinkwrap it and call it a day. Certainly, it's nothing like the grinding and irresistible Silver Apples of the Moon. But as bands like Stereolab have proven, a sheen of accessibility can conceal a wealth of texture, and Good Looking Blues more than makes up for its lack of originality with plenty of detail and craft. 
While generally more song-oriented than previous outings, Good Looking Blues is built on a foundation of acid-jazzy, polyrythmic beats-- the kind that just seem to shuffle along until you pay attention to them, at which point they prove to be more layered than Barthes' S/Z. Organic texture is provided throughout by such unhip instruments as the bass clarinet, the trumpet and the flute. Margaret Fiedler's vocals are much further up in the mix than on past releases. This is a welcome thing for the most part, though at points you may wish you could gloss over the lyrics: the opening "Black Cat Bone" in particular, whose stilted rap is basically Blondie's "Rapture" updated for the new millenium. 
Still, Good Looking Blues shows a Laika that has learned from its past mistakes-- they don't get lost in their own loops like they used to-- and willing to stretch out and explore their surroundings. I'd gladly see electronic music lose its innovation if it meant more music like this album's creepily sublime title track or the quiet Reichian beauty of "A Single Word." Of course, the hipsters would never stand for it.
Zach Hooker / Pitchfork 

Laika ‎– Sounds Of The Satellites (1997)

Style: Downtempo, Experimental
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Too Pure

01.   Prairie Dog
02.   Breather
03.   Out Of Sight And Snowblind
04.   Almost Sleeping
05.   Starry Night
06. Bedbugs
07.   Martinis On The Moon
08.   Poor Gal
09.   Blood+Bones (Moody Mix)
10.   Shut Off/Curl Up
11.   Spooky Rhodes
12.   Dirty Feet+Giggles

Credits: Drums, Piano, Percussion, Backing Vocals – Rob Ellis Vibraphone – Alonso Mendoza Flute – Louise Elliott Percussion – Lou Ciccotelli Sampler, Guitar, Vocals, Bass, Synthesizer, Drums, Trumpet – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Fiedler
The World Trade Center in New York is one of the tallest buildings on earth. Heaving its twin towers over one hundred stories into the sky, its most stunning engineering feature hits you when you step inside: each of the nearly acre-wide floors is wide open from edge to edge with no central means of support.  
Laika construct a similar feat on Sounds of the Satellites, the group's sophomore effort. Repeated listens reveal layer upon layer of sound, but the end result isn't dense; the album floats along, spacious and atmospheric while reaching toward the ionosphere.  
Every teenaged, amber-sunglassed, Tom Rowlands wannabe with a sampler is looping electronic bleeps and hip-hop beats, but only a choice few bands are using new technology intelligently to enhance their music instead of using it as a crutch. Stereolab and Spiritualized are shining examples; Laika is another. 
The core of the group is Margaret Fiedler and Guy Fixsen, musical polymaths who split command of vocals, guitar, bass, minimoog, trumpet and sampling. Former drummer for PJ Harvey Rob Ellis is also on board, along with guest flutists, vibraphonists and percussionists to flesh out the pair's gently orbiting compositions. 
Expertly blending dub and hip-hop technology with live instrumentation that nods to jazz, trip-hop and dreamy pop, the cyborg fusion of smooth organic grooves in a warm electronic bath is subtly addictive. And I do mean warm; most computerized music is sorely lacking in soul, leaving listeners in a cold synthetic wash, but Laika's sound is as endearing as the dog they named themselves after, the first animal to be shot into orbit. It helps that the group writes actual songs, not just repetitive dance tracks.  
"Almost Sleeping" is a gorgeously smooth track, the languid beat, gentle vibes and light modulations in tone emphasizing the lassitude of the lyrics: "lose track of days, whiling away/I don't have strength to get away." The lilting flute that closes out the track is a lovely touch. The odd, Lee Perry-ist machine clunking that opens "Starry Night" is softened by wah-wah guitar and soft moog flourishes, setting the twilight scene: "the air is still / the earth sleeps / we move with the grace of the moon / sweeping through the clouds / one by one the stars break through." This is a cosmonaut's perfect lullaby. 
The album may be mellow in places, but it's not all zero-gravity floating; "Bedbugs" is a funky, Curtis Mayfield-style story of a player with edgy guitar licks, "Poor Gal" a jungle-influenced rave up, and "Shut Off/Curl Up" a dark look into the bruised psyche of an abused woman. A richly textured, deceptively complex album with intriguing sounds and solid songwriting, Sounds of the Satellites is tailor made for those who want to leave the earth for a while - throw on the headphones, stare up into the starry blackness and bliss out. 
Jared O'Connor / Angel Fire (1998) 

Laika ‎– Silver Apples Of The Moon (1994)

Style: Downtempo, Trip Hop, Experimental
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Too Pure

01.   Sugar Daddy
02.   Marimba Song
03.   Let Me Sleep
04.   Itchy
05.   Coming Down Glass
06.   If You Miss
07.   44 Robbers
08.   Red River
09.   Honey In Heat
10.   Thomas
11.   Spider Happy Hour

Bass – John Frenett
Drums, Percussion – Lou Ciccotelli
Flute – Louise Elliott
Guitar – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Fiedler
Marimba – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Fiedler
Melodica – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Fiedler
Sampler – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Fiedler
Saxophone – Louise Elliott
Synthesizer [Moog] – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Fiedler
Vibraphone [Vibes] – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Fiedler
Voice – Guy Fixsen, Margaret Fiedler

Coming from the same label that brought us P.J. Harvey and Stereolab, the omens were good for Laika; my expectations were increased by the excellent cover resplendent with a couple of 1962 Albanian postage stamps (an excellent year for them it has to be said) and it’s not every band that can boast a Hot Press Single of the Week among its accolades. I hurled the CD into the machine, my breath well and truly baited. 
And then? What a bummer! Silver Apples Of The Moon ambles along, apparently intent in the knowledge that if the remorseless rhythmic shuffle and airy fairy flute frolics don’t get you, the marimbas surely will. Admittedly listening to this album in the midst of a Dublin winter with the flu breeding down my throat isn’t the most appropriate environment to appreciate the finer points of a record which might just have the potential to be huge along the beaches and in the nightclubs of Rio de Janeiro but you’d need to be on some exotic drug and/or under severe hypnosis to enjoy Silver Apples Of The Moon around these parts.
Nick Kelly / Hot Press