Californian Soil (Ministry Of Sound/Dew Process)
It’s not exactly true, even as it’s often said, that London Grammar are an electronic act. Yes, their style is often a kind of spectral landscape where keyboard-generated sounds play as both sonic beds and decorative ornaments, where Hannah Reid’s voice flows over the top as a commentator rather than dominator, and where percussion feels programmed more than physically applied.
However, there’s an accompanying application of R&B that insinuates itself regularly, the effect of which is to subtly underscore the smooth progression with digressions of moods that don’t contradict the often-sombre top sheet of Reid’s songs but do serve to pick at the seams.
That works just enough to remind you of more strongly expressed emotions kept bundled up under that sheet: they’re English after all, and implication is more natural than explication. At the same time, it’s allowed for some leavening of what generally has been a subdued, occasionally stern tone: they’re not about the “fun” but they may concede to the “move”.
Not for nothing have Massive Attack been a consistent, and valid, reference point so far for Reid and bandmates/co-writers Dan Rothman and Dot Major. On album number three, Californian Soil, this is more easily, more satisfyingly, seen. Not just in the handful of songs that genuinely do make dancing an imperative but in the way the other songs feel on that continuum.
If All My Love has the space and lingering hurt of Antony & The Johnsons, there’s no missing the flow, the rhythmic tug of this album, among the heart pulse of Missing, which spends its three and a half minutes in quiet throb and splashes of prettiness, the very Massive Attack languorous pull (and timely strings) of the title track, or the airy darkness of Talking, where the album’s more commonly thick, orchestrated sound is pared back to piano and bass, and Reid’s voice moves in and out of view.
More clearly, in Call Your Friends, which has wet-streets percussion and slides up to a low-impact groove while Reid admits to failings on both sides of a relationship, and I Need The Night, whose hymnal opening turns a corner and finds itself in sight of a swaying, clapping gospel choir, London Grammar look like they’re driving us forward.
Even in the slow overhang of America, which closes the album as a kind of postscript (or maybe connected line) to the opening atmospheric grandeur of Intro, the trio take a kind of double Lana Del Rey lane. That is, while the perspective on the self-perpetuating myth of an America brings scepticism – especially as one of the metaphors on the album for the way our weaknesses undercut our interpersonal dealings - there’s also a film noir-ish mood settling over the four minutes that has a restlessness about it.
While one of the co-producers, Steve Mac, brings a modern hooded disco feel (think somewhere between Dua Lipa and The Weeknd) to How Does It Feel, it is in the two tracks co-produced with George Fitzgerald, whose own work is well worth investigating if you like your electronica with elevated grooves, where the best moves are made.
The Fitzgerald tracks, Baby It’s You and Lose Your Head, are the counter-interludes, the breaks to dance rather than a slow-to-be-realised slide into it. Not frenzied dance by any means, but definitely an adult room where you might have just heard Jessie Ware and Caribou.
The way the brass and percussion ascend, about two minutes into Lose Your Head, on to a higher plateau where they meet the strings is simply but cleverly wrought, and if the track is at least a minute too short for me, the remix potential is wide. Baby It’s You is a mechanised ride with human-coloured emotions filtering through, firstly in Reid’s contained voice and then in the splashes of keyboards and rising-with-the-tide rhythm tracks.
Both tracks carry Fitzgerald’s tangible ease and serve as a reminder – because the differences from the tracks around them are not that really significant given this is decidedly a London Grammar record, not a guest producer’s one – that for Reid, Rothman and Major, Californian Soil is in the end a serious album, not a sombre one.
An Australian tour for London Grammar (Covid-permitting of course) has been announced for 2022.
Belvoir Ampitheatre, Perth, February 19; Riverstage, Brisbane, February 22; Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, February 24; Aware Super Theatre, Sydney, February 26; Adelaide Entertainment Centre, March 1.