Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Two "new" releases, the Legends Edition (II): Drugstore, "Anatomy"; Woob, "Repurpose"

Last year, I wrote a post about new albums by PJ Harvey and Mogwai, two fairly well known acts who happened to release their best new music in years.  This pairing is a little different. Both acts vanished without a trace for a number of years, only to make fairly recent and unheralded comebacks.  So unheralded, in fact, that even I had no idea they'd released new albums until a few weeks ago.

A lot of people would consider it a stretch to call a couple of relative unknowns legends.  But they both made singular, other-worldly music in the mid-90's, including albums that I believe were two of the top ten albums of that decade.  At the same time, I don't think they can be considered "cult" acts either.  Drugstore recorded a single with Thom Yorke at the height of the "OK Computer" hype. Woob was the flagship act on Em:t, which was a very well regarded label in ambient music circles.  On just about any given day, you can find Woob and other Em:t CDs fetching impressive sums for resale on eBay.   Some bands make a couple of great albums, disappear for a while, and their legend only grows with time.  But most bands that disappear for ten years are simply forgotten.  Even some of their biggest fans, like me, forget all about them.  That is, although I still love the music they made, Woob and Drugstore ceased to exist as living, breathing things for me some time ago.  Even when I knew that Drugstore had reunited over two years ago for a series of comeback gigs, it didn't seem real.  They had been out of sight and out of mind for so long, and I simply forgot to check up on new developments.

Isobel Monteiro summarized her "lost" years on her blog and posted regular updates leading up to the release of "Anatomy" this past summer.  Woob's official website doesn't say a word about why Paul Frankland decided to resurface when he did, but the past two years have seen a number of new releases, as well as the re-release of the classic "Woob 1194" album.  It's like a dream I never thought I could be having -- it's 2012, and both Drugstore and Woob are active, working musicians again.  Did their talents come along for the ride too?


"Anatomy" is a lot less immediate than the other three Drugstore albums.  There's nothing resembling the Velvet-y fuzz rock of the debut or the stadium-sized crunch of "White Magic For Lovers".  "Songs for the Jetset" caught me off guard because it was so tranquil and laid back.  Its mellow, understated melodicism only clicked for me after a number of repeat listens. But "Anatomy" is even quieter and slower moving.  Nothing "rocks" here, even compared to the more upbeat moments on "Songs for the Jetset".  Besides a few twangy splashes of guitar on the opener (and single) "Sweet Chili Girl", the opening trio of songs crawl along so slowly, with so much empty space on the recording, that you might mistake them for a set of iTunes-only acoustic outtakes rather than the songs on the actual album.  I came around on those songs however.  Besides, the essence of a Drugstore album is never within the first few songs.  You always have to wait a bit until they slice your heart open for real.

"Anatomy" is very much the sequel to "Songs for the Jetset", in that it has the same recorded in a log cabin, stripped down, whisky-soaked feel. It could have released at any point in the past ten years.  There are no production gimmicks, nothing that does or will date this album anytime in the near future (as opposed to the treble-heavy Owen Morris-style sound of "White Magic For Lovers", which was left behind in the 90's on the Oasis and Verve albums from which it came).  It's a Drugstore album through and through, filled with all of their usual trademark song types.  There's the motivational ode to alcohol ("Can't Stop Me Now"), the mid-tempo rocking duet with a male singer ("Aquamarine"), the silly song ("Blackholes and Brokenhearts"), and all the tear-stained ballads you could ever want, featuring Isabel Monteiro's still deliciously sultry voice.  And "Clouds" is the type of soul-crushing breakup song that separates good bands from essential ones.

I'm not sure there's ever been any album quite like "Anatomy", that is, I'm not sure time has ever stood still like this.  You might expect that Isabel has the type of voice that would slowly disintegrate over the years, for example, in the same way that Kristin Hersh's has.  But time and mountains of cigarettes be damned, she sounds absolutely the same as she did fifteen years ago.  The rest of the band is new, but they've been seamlessly, impressively plugged into the Drugstore formula without a single misstep.  How often does a band take a ten-year time out from recording music, pick up at the precise moment where they left off, and still manage to sound this contemporary?  Two years ago, Drugstore were nothing but a memory, now they've reappeared out of thin air and gone straight back to being one of the world's most interesting bands. How did it happen?


Whereas Drugstore seemingly hopped in a time machine, reappeared ten years in the future, and continued where they'd left off in 2001, Woob's 2010 comeback album, "Repurpose", is less of a continuation than a do-over of past work.  Significant portions of  "Woob 4495" have been reedited and reassembled -- it's as if you're hearing a long lost alternate mix of the album.  One problem with "Woob 4495" was that nearly every track was too short (e.g. the brooding opener "Gate") or too long (the 24-minute "Depart", too long by at least ten minutes).  "Repurpose" strikes a good balance between those two extremes , keeping the best elements of the source material and embellishing or cutting back as appropriate.

All in all, Woob's ethno-music direction fit nicely into what Em:t was releasing at the time.  Most of "Repurpose" is reminiscent of his post-1995 music, when he was comfortably nestled into the Em:t pack.  But "Woob 1194" was superlative because it was completely unlike anything else on the label. It combined warm-blooded dub with bone chilling ambient, effortlessly and seamlessly switching between styles, blissful at one moment, frightening the next.  "Repurpose" doesn't break new ground until the final track, "85 Bit", which finally recalls the anything goes spirit of the debut.  It combines science fiction soundtrack melodies, speaker rattling bass, prog rock organ sounds, squelchy downtempo beats, and a million other things into a 17-minute catalog of ambient moods and textures.

Perhaps the most flattering thing one can say about listening to "Repurpose" is that not a minute goes by when the music isn't instantly recognizable as Woob.  As a fan, you can't really complain about that, especially when an artist returns after fifteen years in the wilderness.

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