There is always a particular risk involved in attempting to fuse two distinct musical genres. Apart from artistic difficulties, which are often overwhelming, there is always the likelihood that you will alienate supporters of either form. Yet, given that popular music is by and large the story of such fusions, new candidates are usually worth attending to, if only because any one may just turn out to be the sound of things to come. The latest contender in the “envelope pushing” stakes is the increasingly respected DJ and producer Q-Burns. With Invisible Airline Burns (Louisiana’s Michael Donaldson) has brought together a bewildering variety of beats from hip-hop to darkest house and put them at the service of some tasty but fairly conventional rock stylings. The results have been viewed with sneering suspicion within sections of club culture. I hope the rock fans are more open-minded as there is definitely something of substance happening here.
Actually, if there was any justice (or even logic) to the current charts then “Shame”, the lead-off single from what is at all times a polished and headphone-friendly album, would have been one of this year’s summer anthems. Light and frothy, fairly folky but sufficiently beat driven, it has outdoor festivals and dance tent abandon written all over its infectious groove. Worth five minutes of anyone’s life, it has the added bonus of Lisa Shaw on singing duties.
If you are not familiar with the name Lisa Shaw then check out her work for Naked Music, the deep house label that has blessed us with some of the coolest and most melodic music of the past two years. However, if you already a devotee of tracks like “Always” (and her other contributions to that rather grown-up end of the dance scene) a word of warning is in order. The singer has made it clear that she is as at home with rock as she is with blissed-out soulful dance, and, despite the esoteric range of rhythms on display, Invisible Airline is more of an indie album with dance sensibilities than the other way round. This is especially true of the five tracks which feature Ms. Shaw. Some of these might appeal to the downtempo and leftfield club scene but their more likely audience is the Glastonbury generation who appreciate a bit of Massive Attack and Moby with their guitar bands.
Apart from the good-natured “Shame”, there is the Southern sounding “Innocent”, complete with jangling guitars and a distinct rural vocal inflection, and the very post-punk “Drifting”. These are too close to the college radio end of the spectrum for any clubber but are well-crafted and effective in their way. More exploratory is “This Time”, a Talking Heads-style number with a distinct Argentinean rhythmic slant. As it happens, there is much about this whole effort which would sit well on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. However, not even that fine imprint has come up with anything as weighty as “Differently”. This is a true gem and one with severe boundary-crossing possibilities. Dubby, down-tempo and with teasingly disturbed lyrics (“If I had to die again I’d do it differently”), it is the highlight of the disc and a strong contender for vocal track of the year. Lisa Shaw is likely to move on to big things in the coming months (Madonna is a great admirer, apparently). If this marks her farewell to the underground then she departs on a triumphant, if somewhat gloomy, note.
Though the Shaw songs are the most immediate, as well as being the numbers likely to be the subject of the most dispute, the other tracks are both less problematic and more genuinely cross-fertilised. In addition, they allow Q-Burns’ personal signature to be appreciated fully. That stamp includes a fondness for organic sounds (hence the folky quality) filtered through a deep understanding of the opportunities offered by sampling and the new electronica. On the back of this, each piece is carefully structured and while there is little here that would absolutely rock the dancefloor there is a solidity to all the beats and basslines that manages to keep the more “Abstract” moments sufficiently robust.
Diversity is, naturally, another trademark. Rap (“Imprisoned Glitch”), unhurried, slightly Latin, House( the excellent “Asa Nisi Masa”) and some Psychedelia (“Dreamland”) all have their place. Unity is maintained by the crispness and a certain sparseness in the production. This gives the album, in parts, a rather cold, distant feel — but there are notable exceptions — as when the fairground sounds that get the digital treatment on “Amusement Park Heart” suddenly take on a freshness that is both peculiar and evocative. Most compelling of all is the chilling “Mother’s Dead”, a mini-masterpiece which should be released as a single forthwith. At first glance this is another breakbeat take on the blues, the sort of thing that both St.Germain and Moby have toyed with of late. The achievement here is to bump up the beats 21st century style while retaining the raw impact of a fine rendition of the Blind Willie Johnson classic “Motherless Children”. Timeless, contemporary and very intense. You may have gathered that there is a darkness of theme and tone about many of the tracks. Indeed there is and it more than outweighs the flowery, bucolic moments. Not that it is a depressing experience — too funky for that — but mood is a key factor and that mood tends to be somewhat sombre. Again this may appeal to only the left-field and second-room but the more adventurous clubs should at least be intrigued.
How innovative a collection this is remains open to question. Others have, of course, trodden similar paths. Invisible Airline represents at least a significant advance on much of the drivel passed off under the banner rock-dance (remember big beat a while back?) and the trip-hop label, which is likely to be attached to it, does no justice to the toughness of the rhythm tracks. Other more ambient takes on a similar line are flourishing in the States (often on Shadow Records) but they lack the urgency that can be found on this set. So it may be that we are in the presence of something new.
This of course is of far less importance than the fact that if someone with my hostility to rock music can find much to admire here then there should be a sizeable audience out there who would absolutely love this album — if they can find whichever pigeon-hole record stores decide to file it under. Good luck to them and to all those involved in this fascinating project.