Wagon Christ: Toomorrow

Wagon Christ
Ninja Tune

Well hey there, Wagon Christ. Long time no see.

Seven years after releasing the last record under his flagship moniker, Luke Vibert appears to have no intention of taking his project out of the bedroom, where it was born at the dawn of the ‘90s. No live 20-piece zither orchestra, no monstrously bad cameos from flash-in-the-pan R&B singers, just Luke, his regular gear, and his colorful, whacked-out imagination. I must admit, I breathed a sigh of relief when “Introfunktion” sauntered in with its genial jazz chords, hip-hop beat and old timey vocal samples, the way Vibert’s Wagon Christ music has always done. It’s like getting a call from an old, low-maintenance friend. The project is so unique, the sounds so easy on the ear, and the albums so infrequently released that he could coast along making the same basic type of music until hell freezes over — and I hope he does. And that’s quite a statement for an incredibly consistent project that is now almost 20 years old. Twenty years old!

Vibert, restless bloke that he is, has produced tunes wearing several different hats over his illustrious but oddly drama-free career. He’s known as Plug when he wears his drum ‘n bass hat, the Ace of Clubs when he wears his acid hat, and simply Luke Vibert when he feels like switching between all the hats in his closet. Wagon Christ has always been my personal favorite. It isn’t quite enough to say it’s what he makes wearing his hip-hop hat, even though it represents his most laid-back material. In fact, Wagon Christ eats up multiple electronic genres and releases them as genre-less products of his own blunted, happy-go-lucky worldview. I caught the Wagon Christ train at 13 years old upon Tally Ho!’s release, and fell head over heels for his near-perfect marriage of sophistication and silliness. Nowadays, as I grow reluctantly into my adult skin, this music moves me back to youthful bliss better than almost anything else. It says something to me that babies — crying, babbling, laughing — are among his most commonly employed samples.

I still maintain that Wagon Christ, along with the similarly minded Mr. Scruff and Mouse on Mars, would make fantastic children’s music. You’ll need to a bit of censoring here and there, because you never quite know what’s going to pop up and zing you until you hear it. In this case, it’s the coital moaning on the title track, which makes my prude ears curl up a little. But that’s to be expected from Wagon Christ and it keeps the music fresh, the trashy and the erudite nestling together in a cottony cocoon. “Toomorrow” could be his lushest, richest song since his Tally Ho! days, where scores of lovely countermelodies paw at each other and form a trademark Vibert pastiche both playful and luxuriously supple. It is without question the record’s best, most intricate track, but “Sentimental Hardcore” wins for catchiest hook, a sweet two-note melody gliding from timbre to timbre. And “Ain’t He Heavy, He’s My Brother” — just a stoned bounce with a beat, a bass, a keyboard and some light sampling — shows his adeptness at doing more with less. Sometimes, you have to let a good groove speak for itself.

That’s a principle he’s utilized successfully before, on the great instrumental hip-hop tracks from his previous four albums: “Phase Everyday” (on Throbbing Pouch), “Fly Swat” (on Tally Ho!), “Tomach” (on Musipal), and “Kwikwidetrax” (on Sorry I Made You Lush). A lot of ideas have been imported here from his backlog, and his gear sounds virtually unchanged. Close listeners will recognize that unique talkbox-y synthesizer winding its way soulfully through “Mr. Mukatsuku” as the same one from both “Kwikwidetrax” and Sorry’s opening number, “Saddic Gladdic”. It’s all very nicely familiar, considering how long it’s been since he’s paid us a visit, and how other artists have manically changed their games to satisfy a continually bored listenership. Still, he hasn’t completely stayed in place. I love the unexpected, confident Motor City strut of “Respectrum”, with those bone-dry ‘70s trumpets and Hammond organs bringing forth positive energy amid the blaring sirens in the background. Wagon Christ has done Blaxploitation before, on Musipal’s “Receiver”, but never from this angle.

So that’s the good stuff, and it is truly good stuff. The ratio of flab to substance is, unfortunately, a good deal higher than it has been on his previous records. Each of them has contained a couple throwaways, but you could usually tune them out. Here, there are so many — “Manalyze This!”, “My Lonely Scene”, “Chunkothy”, about half the songs in all — that they almost sink the record. Vibert does best when he’s working with melody, and that goes for his other projects, too. His knowledge of harmonics is top-notch, and he can make chords come together and sing absolutely beautifully — maybe more beautifully than he appreciates. When there’s plenty of melody, Toomorrow shines; when there’s little more than a beat and some sampling, as on the pointlessly abrasive “Wake Up”, it nearly bombs. So you’re left with a righteous EP if you drop six or seven of these puppies out of the mix, or the most inessential Wagon Christ album in the catalog. Either way, it’s an effective nostalgia trip from an artist I’ve genuinely missed, and that’s good enough for me. Hope to see you wearing this hat again sooner than later, Luke my man.

RATING 6 / 10