August 03, 2003

Robin Guthrie "Imperial"

Any record that bears the name "Robin Guthrie" is going to be a pleasure. Whether it's the sterling, sparlking twinkle of the Cocteau Twins, or one of his later productions for his own label, Bella Union, you can rest assured that Guthrie's not going to slouch on the production, and he's very rarely let his audience down. (Okay, so Violet Indiana wasn't exactly a charmer, but let's not muck about on the kudos, okay?) Give him credit, too, for starting the wonderful Bella Union label. Thus, it is nothing more than obvious--or more honest--to say that you know exactly what you're going to get from Imperial. Guthrie's style is so distinct, so original and so obvious, to expect anything more would be asking too much. Just don't worry about what he's going to give you, it's going to be a quality production.

While it's true that everything on Imperial sounds like a Guthrie production, there is one thing that is quite conspicuous in its absence--vocals. Once again, though, Guthrie's expert production is an assurance that you won't miss them--and you don't. In fact, it's a good thing that there is no singing; vocals cover up the beauty found in instrumentation. While beautiful vocals have always been the strongest feature of Guthrie's productions, with that distraction gone, he has to focus on the minute details--a twinking piano here, a pulsing yet very faint heartbeat beat there--which really turn his songs into a quiet and subtle symphony for the subconscious. Though the overall feel of Imperial is not far removed from the Cocteau Twins' collaboration with pianist Harold Budd, Guthrie has certainly grown as a producer and as a composer. Indeed, on the opening title track, the quiet drum-machine beat towards the end of the song turns it away from an ethereal instrumental into something more--blues based? Rock oriented? Laugh as you will, but edit about a minute off of the song, and "Imperial" would fit quite well in any detective movie or police TV drama.

Perhaps, though, the most minor weakness is the strength of his past. He doesn't have to win anyone over, and if you're not willing to accept the music on that level, you could easily think that he's simply reliant to recreate past victories. It's certainly not the case, mind you, but if you own more than two of his previous records, you'll be well-versed with what Imperial sounds like. When Guthrie introduces quiet, subtle beats to his music, you kind of wonder if he's going to delve further into beats and rhythms. Sadly, he doesn't stray too far from the Robin Guthrie formula; while extremely satisfying, it does leave the listener wanting a little bit more from the music. At times, I get the distinct feeling that he's practicing restraint; the first time I listened to "Music for Labour," I kept waiting for it to turn into a dancefloor-ready electronica beat...but it didn't. It would have been wonderful, of course.

Instead of taking gigantic leaps, he seems more content to quietly let change happen--no need to rush, is there? Some might say that this isn't particularly risky, but why should he? After twenty years of brilliant music, Guthrie has nothing to prove, and he doesn't have to. Imperial might not add anything new or innovative to the already well-respected Robin Guthrie canon, but it certainly does not take anything away from it, either. Will he ever reach the same heights as he did with the Cocteau Twins? Maybe he will--or maybe not. At this point in time, he doesn't need to try anymore, and that's the best thing about Imperial. A well made album by a master album-maker--no surprises, no shocks, no alarms required, and none given.

--Joseph Kyle

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