Bella Union’s latest great hopes, Drab City, offer a glamorously disheveled form of creepy art-pop from the union of early 2000s witch-house pioneer, oOoOO, aka San Franciscan Chris Dexter Greenspan, and the Berlin-based Bosnian-Muslim producer Asia aka Islamiq Grrrls. With their enticing debut album, Good Songs for Bad People, the duo have honed a woozy late-night style that plugs into a mind-melting synthesis of dream-pop, trip-hop, dub, jazz, doo-wop, and soundtrack vibes. Their glitchy songs of violence and paranoia radiate a deranged elegance that’s both succinct and off-kilter.
The duo employ an array of blissed-out ingredients: jazzy, David Axelrod-meets-Barry Adamson arrangements, quivering flutes, spy flick guitars, mellotron strings, smeary synth textures, rumbling bass, low-slung hip-hop beats, and mellifluous vocals. The ominous music on the band’s bleak debut positions them as eager heirs to the sonic lift-off Broadcast’s laser-guided radiophonics and the spectral breakbeats of Portishead’s torch song future blues.
The opening instrumental, “Entering Drab City”, lays down an eerie, Ghost Box via Twin Peaks ambience with its clammy folk-horror guitar line and sun-caked mellotron. That jumps straight into the skeletal percussion, jazzy guitar, shivering flute, and sultry whisperings of the lead single, “Working for the Men”, a sombre revenge ballad underpinned by a nightmarish sway that gives the sense of corpses floating down a stream. Asia sings her anti-patriarchy diatribe like a torch-bearing chanteuse in a David Lynch film, her mellifluous vocals flecked with traces of Trish Keenan and Hope Sandoval.
The groove-orientated tale of destitute youth, “Hand on My Pocket”, carries more of a rhythmic swagger, with a circling bass-line, icy synthesiser tendrils, liquid guitar breaks and a swirl of swelling strings coalescing towards its flanged keyboard coda. It’s both catchy and quietly beautiful and bears the twitchy influence of Broadcast at its most pronounced. The crepuscular, dusty “Devil Doll” is one of the record’s stand-out moments, as well as its most Portishead-like, a prowling, loose-limbed and Heliocentrics-like drum ‘n’ bass shuffle of a groove draped in the aural menace of “Ipcress Style”-like lead guitar notes and mournful strings.
Asia imbues even the most quotidian sentiments with the ache of sticky-eyed sadness as she sings of a “troubled little girl / From a small troubled town / With nowhere to go” on the irrepressible “Troubled Girl”. The track commences with a Shangri-Las-like spoken word intro before embarking upon a Spanish guitar-laced lullaby. It’s not jazz, not pop, but the unspooling of the half-conscious mind.
The gorgeous, unalloyed nostalgia of “Just Me and You” coaxes melodic magic from the ghostly build of its “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”-like guitar figure and spirals to a gleaming crescendo of majesty, equal parts Ennio Morricone and Tindersticks. Elsewhere, intimations of the lounge-funk of Isaac Hayes and Wu-Tang-sampling Shaolin soul inhabit the cavernous French spoken-word “Problem”, which unfurls with scrabbling, psychedelic guitar shapes.
On their assured, plaintively lovely and frequently agitated opening salvo, Drab City have concocted a minor masterpiece of electronic phantasms and rumbling desert soul from grim tidings, alienation, 21st-century hauntological aesthetics, and dissonant harmonics. It’s impressive work that emanates both a seamless sprawl and a mounting dread.