The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, September 19, 2002

A Hundred Days Off is Underworld's Sound of Water; a measured and steady representation of two musicians growing old. The body, abandoned by its primary external lifeforce (Darren Emerson) slowly winding down. Emerson's absence is crucial to this album; it's as though, released from the tentacles of trends, Hyde and Smith can just get on and make the album which I suspect they would have made were they still Freur. From the first track "Mo Move" (making it sound like a Gilles Peterson compilation) you can tell that they are in second gear. Over a reverse "I Feel Love" bassline, Hyde slowly incantates: "I became chemical." I sink back into the earth from which I emerged. It is hymnal rather than in the listener's face. The track progresses unhurriedly, with no particular timetable to which it has to adhere.

Then the single, "Two Months Off." Bookended by what sounds like samples from Big Brother 3 (though on the sleeve "spoken text" is credited to, heh, "Juanita"), a descending celestial keyboard line (Christmas is coming, resurrection a hundred days hence) enters and is soon backed up by enormous tidal chords, suddenly filling the canvas like Whistler's fireworks over Cremorne Gardens, immediately reminding you that Underworld are capable of visions. "You bring light in!" Hyde intones, barely concealing his ecstatic peace beneath the delayed vocal double-track. True, it sounds as though they've been absorbing the last Daft Punk album more than somewhat, yet this has coloratura and architecture which impels you to worship. It is Scooter had they gone to late 19th-century undemonstrative Sunday morning Church of England services and absorbed the frequently unexpected harmonic twists of Dr Dykes' hymns (cf. Hymn No 204 - "O quickly come!" later borrowed by Gounod). And everything remains in mid-range; this is as celebratory as "Born Slippy" would be with ten more years' experience.

Then it's back to second gear for the more laconical groove of "Twist," then decelerating to "Sofa Sister," a skank weirdly reminiscent of Scritti's "Lions After Slumber," with its steady but lopsided rhythm and the lyrical "my" repeat emphasis (key lyric here: "my devious nature - take it away"). In the more animated, Jazzanova-esque "Little Speaker," "Juanita" returns with more anecdotes about growing tall and what may or may not have been anorexia. Keyboard lines overlap with Philip Glass-type grace, the overlying effect, however, being unsettling. There is never a centre in this track on which to focus, which was probably the idea. This is pretty forceful rhythmically, but has to be really listened to before you realise that they have surreptitiously slipped back into first gear.

Then, two brief and odd interludes: "Trim" in which Underworld essentially turn into the Beta Band (I had to double-check the sleeve to make sure that Steve Mason wasn't guesting on vocals) and "EssGee," a straight-faced New Age guitar/synth pastoral mood piece which could have come straight off Metheny's As Falls Wichita... With Emerson gone, are they slowly turning back into Freur?

The title of "Dinosaur Adventure 3D" would seem to confirm their awareness of this possibility, but in fact it's the album's second big, unstoppable rhythmic avalanche, this album's "Cowgirl" or "King of Snake," and proves how effortlessly Hyde and Smith can still induce delirium in the oldest of minds. The vocal here is Vocoderised, and again careful not to get too close to the listener. Don't pension us off just yet, they are saying, we can still do this sort of thing if we want to.

But that's facile. There's not a lot left for the album to do after that but gently wind down, through the brief, uncertain echoes of "Ballet Lane," to the final "Luetin," where Hyde now turns into Bernard Sumner. "If you come back to me/I'll show you a good time/I'll give you a white plastic chip....Sex with everything." The track itself is appropriately parallel with what New Order would be sounding like now with Gillian Gilbert back on board, a twinkling electro descent, which winks its punctum at the listener as it slopes down to its natural ending.

So yes, A Hundred Days Off is exactly what you would expect the new album from an Emerson-less, fortysomething Underworld to sound like. And yet it works, whereas Scorpio Rising doesn't. Why? Because Underworld do not "do guest stars." The trouble with Death In Vegas, as with Primal Scream, is that you get no clear identify of what they are trying to achieve as a group in themselves; they cram their records so full of guest stars that you wonder whether they are trying to hide an essential blankness (is Scorpio Rising the Casino Royale of nu-dance?). Look there's Paul Weller singing Gene Clark. Look there's Liam doing Liam! Record collection rock, when it comes down to it, and deeply conservative. Underworld prefer to fall back on their own resources, do not try to exceed themselves, but are simply content with reminding the listener every so often of the mind-stunning genius of which they are still capable.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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