Mike Atkinson

Youthoracle – Flash Floods Vol.2 EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 15, 2014

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

yoff2As Youthoracle’s star continues to rise in the world of battle rap – he co-organised Don’t Flop’s Nottingham showcase in April, battling the league’s reigning champion – this four-track EP serves as a timely reminder of his skills as a recording artist. It’s an outspoken, socially conscious affair, pitting the MC’s fierce and furious flow against tough grime, dubstep and hip hop beats.

Hellectricity is an uncompromising opener, building from a wide-eyed ode to the wonders of nature (“the birds, the bees, the butterflies”) to an ever-accelerating blast of cold fury, so densely packed that only multiple plays will unlock its message. Just Be offers a statement of personal liberation, as Youthoracle asserts his right to be his own man, before laying into the superficialities of celebrity culture on Fake Sells. Finally, and most memorably of all, there’s the jaw-dropping, heart-stopping StoryTeller, a life story laid bare in unsparing, brutal detail.

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Saint Raymond – Young Blood EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on February 2, 2014

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Callum Burrows has a knack for a hook, and the title track of his second EP is stuffed full of them. Opening with a simple stomp and a cheery tinkle – swiftly joined by chiming guitar and a frisky, funky bassline – Young Blood builds to an expectant bridge (“we can make it if we try”), before blossoming into an exultant two-part chorus, complete with a festival-friendly chant that should carry Saint Raymond all the way through to the summer. It’s followed by Bonfires: a long-established live favourite, originally released as a free download. Although recorded as a demo, the key elements of Saint Raymond’s sound are already in place, and we hear them again in Threads, addressed to a departed lover who’s “the one with all the answers, the queen of second chances”.  Closing the EP, As We Are Now is a short, sparse and poignant ode to seizing the moment.

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One Bomb – The Takeover EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Formed in early 2012, One Bomb blends the talents of Si Tew (keys, synth, bass, a background in downtempo/electronica) and Shookz ( beats, samples, FX, a background in drum & bass), fusing elegant melodic textures with tougher dancefloor beats. This, their debut release, slots neatly alongside Disclosure and Rudimental’s new-school deep house, but with certain key features that are all One Bomb’s own: they’re particularly fond of punctuating their rhythms with subtle staccato string jabs, or of overlaying their breakdowns with rippling whooshes and breezy swoops. Lead track Take Over pits Aja’s vocals against Jackdalad’s rap, while Gave Me Hope takes its time to build, placing Jasper’s vocal samples over a pared-down groove. The sublime Train Tracks is the standout cut, with Wreh-Asha adding a melancholic twist to the euphoric glide, while Roll This Dice takes similar ideas into rougher-edged territory, aided by Aja’s commanding, fiery vocal.

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Marita – Just Me EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

If Kirk Spencer’s Wonderland EP, on which Marita guested, offered a vision of peaceful solace in the heart of the city, then Marita’s Just Me – released simultaneously, co-produced by Spencer and bearing some of his sonic hallmarks – reveals the darker flipside. Throughout its five tracks, Marita prays and pleads for release – both from “the city, so diverse though I feel so alone”, and from her own inner struggles – and yet that release never comes, leaving her suspended in fretful claustrophobia. “I need to be at peace with my mind”, she intones, while fidgety beats, restless electronic pulses and deep bass drops trap her in their web. “I’m going to fly away, I’m going to find a way”, she sighs – but we feel steadily less inclined to believe she will succeed. By the final track, Shackles, her dreams feel drained of purpose, as skeletal beats and woozy sonic backdrops dissolve around her.

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Cantaloupe – Splish / Wet Dog

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on June 10, 2013

Originally printed in LeftLion magazine.

Formed from the ashes of the much missed Souvaris, Cantaloupe follow up last year’s Teapot EP with a three-track 12-inch release. The happy, spurting whale on the cover sets the mood of joyous playfulness which predominates. No strangers to the tricky time signature, the band adopts a 10/4 rhythm for Splish. It’s a frisky, optimistic workout that moves through various phases, underpinned by crisp, spacious percussion and a merrily wandering bass line. Breakdowns and sideways shifts punctuate the main melodic theme, which returns for a triumphant final run, overlaid by beatific synth washes. Wax Stag’s remix initially feels straightened out rhythmically – the drum track is much simpler – but the 10/4 is retained for a cooler, more subdued re-interpetation that shifts the bass to the front of the mix. Wet Dog opts for a driving 4/4, propelled by retro-futurist synth lines, with a half-speed mid-section for good measure.

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Kirk Spencer – Wonderland EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on May 2, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

For his first EP release since The Shanghai Underground in 2011, Kirk Spencer has teamed up with three local singers, for a five-track offering that combines bassy, mostly downtempo, sometimes trap-inspired beats with atmospheric, richly worked arrangements that cast a bewitching spell. There are still a few trademark Eastern touches – a sitar here, a chant there – but these are no longer the most dominant components of Kirk’s sound. Instead, on lead track Kukcu, Safia May invokes the dreamy tone which characterises the EP: “Where do you go when you close your eyes?” Louis Scott takes over for A Kid, an initially unhurried meditation (“nowhere to go, but it doesn’t matter”) which is accelerated by the arrival of a benignly twinkling, almost EDM-style synth riff. Long-time collaborator Marita also returns for the brooding yet affirmative Life On The Island, which pits her prayer for survival against icy swirls and ominous bass thuds.

Download this EP.

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Rob Green – Learn To Fly EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on May 2, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Rob Green is a born entertainer, whose irrepressibly buoyant eagerness on stage shines through in all his recorded vocal performances. Available as a free download via his website, the Learn To Fly EP is an instantly delightful representation of his talents. Magnetic kicks things off: an accusing scold, with a smile on its face. On the title track, a gently acoustic intro bursts into life with rippling piano and supportively cooing backing vocals, as Rob states his personal mission: “Wasting no more time pining, ambition climbing, got to change my state of mind.” Things get faster and funkier on Playing With Fire, with breakneck verses and playfully staccato jibes at Rob’s errant lover; indeed, it’s hard to think of any words rhyming with “fire” that aren’t spat out along the way. Finally, live favourite Over And Done delivers the ultimate kiss-off: “It’s been all of the pain, but none of the fun”.

Download this EP for free.

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Grey Hairs – F.S.D.T. / Cheerful / Forehead

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on March 10, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Although they started as more of a side-project than a serious concern, Grey Hairs have almost unwittingly turned into one of the hottest acts in town, proving there’s often a lot more mileage in happy accidents than carefully laid masterplans. Hard on the heels of their One Hundred Breakfasts EP – a collection of early-days demos, available for free from Bandcamp – this three-track 7-incher showcases the band at their primitive, brutal, smart-plays-dumb best. If you’ve ever seen them live, then lead track F.S.D.T. (“Fuck Shack Darts Tournament” – don’t ask) is the one that will have stuck in your memory. It starts on a single chord, and stays there for what feels like forever, building the tension while singer James/The Cup screams something about “treble twenties” (that’ll be the darts, then) and “waiting for the pain to stop”. Thus, when the second chord finally arrives, it feels – momentarily, at least – like the most thrilling moment in music, ever.

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Joe Danks – Bear On Ice EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on March 10, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

Born into a musical family – his parents’ band, Wholesome Fish, have been plying their trade since time immemorial – Joe Danks has been surrounded by music all his life. Now aged 17, he is quickly coming into his own as a characterful singer-songwriter and an engaging performer. Inspired by the likes of Neil Hannon, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, Joe’s songs offer wry, doleful observations on love and life, with lyrics that veer from open-hearted straightforwardness to intriguing obliqueness. Stylistically, we’re in acoustic-folk territory, skilfully arranged and performed – most notably by Joe’s mother Beth, whose melodic fiddle playing offers a sympathetic, touching counterpoint to her son’s expressions of teenage angst. This is particularly evident on the upbeat Hook Line and Sinker, whose nautical metaphor is extended on the yearning, lovelorn Buoyancy Aid. Elsewhere, Bear On Ice is mysterious and sombre, while More Than Milk hides an unexplained riddle within a break-up song.

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We Are Avengers: Midbrow/Revolution

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on December 16, 2012

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

We Are AvengersFor their second single this year on Farm Yard Records, We Are Avengers – now expanded from a trio to an elegantly turned-out six-piece – have dipped their toes into funkier waters, without surrendering any of the tight songwriting and arranging skills that flavoured their debut release, Trouble.

You can hear this most clearly in Revolution, which pits a loping backbeat against choppy, bluesy guitar and a discreetly swelling Hammond organ, in a way that bears comparison with Nineties trip-hoppers and acid-jazzers such as Young Disciples. The slinky, spacious and deftly restrained arrangement makes a neat counterpoint to Midbrow, the lead track. Here, a brooding bassline ushers in stately, rippling piano, funk-rock guitar, and ambient strings, forming a suitably cinematic backdrop for Emily Martin’s smouldering, torch-song vocals. “Can we make an agreement”, she pleads, while a ghostly chorus coos in the background. Natalie Duncan’s already a fan; there’ll soon be plenty more.

Listen on SoundCloud.

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Kappa Gamma – Just Another / Wildfire

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 9, 2012

(originally written for LeftLion magazine)

Along with Kagoule, whose debut release is due soon on the same label, Kappa Gamma are spearheading a fresh wave of teenage talent in this city, and it’s to Denizen’s credit that both acts have been picked up so promptly. Each of these tracks offers an accurate reflection of the band’s live sound: freewheeling yet tightly structured, cheerfully tumbling and chiming – while still packing an emotional punch – and compressing a dazzling number of musical ideas into three and a half restless, constantly shape-shifting minutes. Tricksy math-rock instrumentation is sweetened with Dog Is Dead-style choral harmonies, solid refrains (“you control it” / “and it’s dark and it’s dark and it’s dark”) sit alongside oblique excursions into the unexpected, and yet the band’s assured lightness of touch makes all of it seem unforced, instinctive, and the most natural thing in the world.

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Liam Bailey – Please Love Me / On My Mind

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 9, 2012

(originally written for LeftLion magazine)

A year on from splitting with Polydor, Liam Bailey’s re-emergence as a solo artist continues in fine fashion with this, his sixth – and arguably his best – release. Released by New York’s Truth & Soul label, these two tracks adhere to the label’s in-house style, inspired as they are by vintage soul traditions – but more importantly, the deft, sympathetic arrangements offer the best fit to date for Liam’s strong vocal personality. On Please Love Me, the singer sighs and swoons in falsetto over a simple template – choppy Stax guitar on the left, twangy country guitar on the right, snappily bouncing bassline in the centre – before strings and brass make their entrance. Meanwhile, the flipside re-visits an EP track from last year, re-casting it as a strutting, swaggering, almost menacing Southern blues shuffle. If this is how the album’s going to sound, then we’re in for a treat.

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Cantaloupe – Teapot EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on June 21, 2012

(originally published in LeftLion magazine)

Representing three-fifths of the late lamented Souvaris, who played their farewell show in February, Cantaloupe retain elements of their parent band’s approach, whilst forging a distinctive new path of their own.

The four instrumental tracks on this debut release are shorter, brighter, snappier propositions, with John Simson’s retro-futuristic synths placed in the foreground. Opening track Teapot and closing track Horse are relatively straight-up, four-to-the-floor affairs, with a sunny, bubbling, krautrock-like, early Stereolab feel; you could almost imagine them soundtracking an optimistic promotional film for an early Seventies shopping precinct.

The music dips into more reflective waters on Hubbub and Scuttle, which re-introduce the players’ fondness for tricky time signatures, and their knack for making seem like the most natural thing in the world. There aren’t many bands who would introduce a track as their “disco number” at a gig, and then proceed to play it in 10:4 time – and even for that alone, Cantaloupe should be cherished.

Preview on Bandcamp.
Pre-order / buy the EP.
Read more about Cantaloupe.

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Rubix – Style Wars, Volumes 1-4

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on February 13, 2012

(0riginally published in LeftLion magazine)

Having dabbled with bass music on Take Me Higher and drum & bass on I Can Reach, Rubix have switched up on us again. In conjunction with Chelmsford’s Alpharatz, who supply half the tracks, the four Style Wars EPs take house music as their starting point, blending a range of retro and contemporary influences.

On Volume 1, Night Life sprinkles perky chiptune melodies over French filter disco, seasoned with hints of Eighties boogie. Things get sweeter still with Runaway, in which Charlie Starr’s vocals and James Hancock’s beats evoke two-step garage’s golden years, until a thundering dubstep throb drags things forward to the here and now.

It gets dirtier and nastier on Volume 2, as Charlie gives Peaches a run for her money on the electroclash-evoking Do Me Like A. Next comes Groove Line, whose comparatively restrained sitar/piano intro is swiftly obliterated by a filthy, rasping “donk”. We’d be nudging into Euro hard trance territory, if it wasn’t for the surprise flamenco breakdown.

Early Nineties warehouse rave dominates Volume 3’s Overload, which couples euphoric vocals (“put your hands up to the sky”) with skittering breakbeats and piano house riffs.  The breakbeats become heavier and the keyboards get more twisted on Dirty Kiss, whose growling bass verges on the demonic.

Volume 4 lightens the mood, as Chicago and House Musik pay homage to the original jack tracks. Vocal cut-ups abound, pitted against deep whoomphing bass and a certain measure of Larry Heard-esque dreaminess. An album follows soon, and it’s sure to surprise us again.

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Lonely Heart Club EP – Nina Smith

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 2, 2011

Written for LeftLion magazine.

Already well-regarded on the city scene, Nina Smith has gone from strength to strength this year, making her one of our most hotly tipped acts.  A graduate of Trevor Rose’s CRS studio in St. Ann’s, where she learnt her craft adding guest vocals to hip hop tracks, Nina has developed her own style of delicate, vulnerable, yet subtly assertive acoustic pop, whose roots in urban music can still be faintly discerned.

On this, her debut EP, a beat-free, wordlessly improvised introduction segues into the title track, in which Nina hesitantly contemplates the prospect of a new relationship.  (“I think I’m falling in love and I want to just fight it – should I take or embrace or deny it?”)  These doubts are confirmed in Sexy Surprise, which has Nina helplessly observing her lover falling for someone new.  “Can you let me in?” she pleas, already aware that the game is lost.  “Oh, what a surprise”, she shrugs, shoring herself up by slyly mocking his new infatuation.

Then, the killer track: I Won’t Forget You is a deceptively simple love song on the surface, whose superb video (also included on the CD, along with an “on the road” documentary) subverts its meaning, suggesting darker undercurrents which are never fully explained.  Lastly, on The Truth, Nina strives to resolve these uncertainties, this time addressing the listener directly.  Her final words are inconclusive: “Please don’t make me tell you it’s OK, because I don’t know.”  Ultimately, perhaps the only certainty here is Nina’s remarkable talent.

Nottingham Post interviewbuy the EP on iTuneslisten on Spotify

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Sparks EP – The Money.

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on October 2, 2011

Written for LeftLion magazine.

Giving the lie to the usual assumptions about “battle of the bands” contests, The Money’s success at this year’s Future Sound of Nottingham has given their profile a massive boost, turning them from unsigned unknowns to one of the city’s most talked about acts.  Opening the main stage at Splendour in July, they scaled up a treat: radiating confidence and authority, and looking and sounding like seasoned festival regulars.

But then they’re hardly short on experience, having served their apprenticeship playing covers in Greek holiday resorts: three sets a night, five nights a week, in time-honoured “Beatles in Hamburg” fashion.  It’s not the coolest of ascendancies, to be sure – but to dismiss The Money for lacking indie cred is to miss the point entirely.

Although firmly rooted in a classic pop/rock tradition – choppy riffs, hooky tunes, soaring harmonies, anthemic choruses – the band have transcended their influences and crafted a sound all of their own: instantly familiar, yet impossible to pigeonhole.  Two of the tracks on this EP – Looks Like Rain and Feel Like You Save Me – could have been A-sides in their own right, both deserving to be placed on heavy radio rotation.  And in the latter track, which accrued extra poignancy on the Splendour stage (“come on and give me a lifeline, I think it’s about time, I need to feel like this all of the time”), the band even have their own ready-made “winner’s song”.  Hey, Nottingham: it feels like we saved them.

Buy this EP from iTunes. Listen to it on Spotify.

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Erra – Stax / Jookup

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on July 31, 2011

(Written for LeftLion magazine)

There are underlying tensions at the heart of both tracks on this long-awaited 12-inch release from former Wigflex stalwart (and self-styled purveyor of “cake music”) Luke Mellard, aka Erra.  On Stax,  jerky, clattering, grime and garage-derived rhythms provide the bedrock for a nagging four-note synth riff,  which re-appears in a variety of different treatments: sometimes staccato, sometimes jazzy.  But even as these elements playfully dance around each other – restlessly shape-shifting, never settling into predictable patterns – you’re also made aware of certain gentler, more reflective counter-currents.  These rise to the surface at around the three minute mark, as the track dissolves into a beatless, meditative glide.  The rhythms resume, but at a slower pace, offering respite from the madness.  Eventually, the dance riffs kick back in, with more furious insistence and certainty than ever before – but the battle is only temporarily won, and we’re soon winding back down again.

The rhythms are more fractured on Jookup, but Erra’s sonic palette stretches wider and deeper here.  In the engine room, bassy sproings and rumbling wub-wubs propel the track in multiple directions at once, bouncing off each other with reckless energy.  Meanwhile, up on the top deck, pitched-up vocal cut-ups shimmer daintily, in an almost pointillist fashion.  The overall effect is elastic, frisky, cartoon-like – at least until the breakdown, which once again brings a measure of calm to choppy waters.  Cheerfully chucking the rule-books of genre out of the window, Erra’s approach is fresh, inventive and loaded with youthful promise.

Click here to purchase from Beatport.

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Joseki / Morris Cowan: Functions EP (Connect For Music)

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on June 10, 2011

(This was written for LeftLion in February, but never published.)

The syncopated, propulsive rhythms that have come to characterise the UK Funky genre have been around a lot longer than you might think; just check the remix of Push The Feeling On by Nightcrawlers, which went Top Three back in 1995, and you’ll begin to get the picture.  Similar rhythms underpin Joseki’s two contributions to this EP, the first release on Richard Powell’s Connect For Music label. (And seeing as it’s his first release, we’ll forgive him the hyperbole – “a new chapter begins in House and Techno” – just this once.)

Speak And Dispell takes its time to build, as vocal cut-ups are layered over moody washes of synth and understated, frisky beats.  Just when you think that things are plateauing out, a key change nudges the track up a gear.  It’s nearly four minutes before the UK Funky influences make their presence felt, adding spice to the tech-house stew.

Then it’s over to Morris Cowan, formerly known as Taylor, whose debut album (Circa) is due out on March 16th. The Good Fellow Ship is a more contemplative, less overtly dance-oriented affair, which blends woozy drones with sweetly abstract piano figures, before resolving into a steadily pulsing final section.

Finally, it’s back to Joseki for the cut with the biggest kick: the insistently lurching Moyo, which scatters glistening electro-boogie splinters over descending bass squelches and arpeggiated squeaks.  Its playful, genre-melding inventiveness is typical of the whole EP, which sets a suitably high standard for an intriguing new label.

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Ronika – Forget Yourself/Wiyoo EP

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on May 31, 2011

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.)

As last year’s wonderful “Do Or Death” mixtape demonstrated, Ronika is clearly in thrall to the post-disco, pre-house dance music that came out of New York between 1981 and 1984.  Those influences first emerged on last year’s debut EP (Do Or Die/Paper Scissors Stone), and they are further developed on this year’s follow-up, which offers a pitch-perfect homage to that classic era.

Forget Yourself is the more immediate, more pop-oriented track, whose breezy, peppy strut is reminiscent of early Madonna and Tom Tom Club.  As such, it’s a tailor-made early summer jam, driven by nagging chants (“Wake up, wake up, get up, get up”) and teasing calls to action (“What you holding out for, ‘cos I know you’ve got more”).  As for the second track on the EP: if Forget Yourself is Jellybean Benitez spinning Madonna at the Funhouse, then Wiyoo (pronounced “why you”) is Larry Levan remixing Gwen Guthrie for the Paradise Garage, augmented by a throbbing Giorgio Moroder bass synth that lifts the chorus into boogie heaven.  Three remixes drag the tracks firmly into the contemporary, without obliterating their essential spirit.

Sassy and sultry in shades and platinum curls, with the same sort of pop-chick-in-control vibe that served the likes of GaGa and Stefani so well, it’s easy to see Ronika – who created this EP almost single-handedly – carrying her music from the underground to the mainstream, and giving the rest of us a homegrown pop princess to be proud of.

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Single review – Shrinkwrap: Beautiful Thing/Hot Dub

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on April 8, 2011

This review originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.

Shrinkwrap
Beautiful Thing/Hot Dub
12″ (Perfect 10 Records)
http://perfect10records.com

Ten years is a heck of a long time to be “on hiatus”, but unless Shrinkwrap have been hiding their lights under a particularly hefty bushel, it would appear that this debut 12-inch release on their Perfect 10 label marks the duo’s first recorded output since 2001. (Standard dance reviewer’s caveat: if it ain’t on Discogs, it doesn’t exist.)  But it’s not that Mark Rayner and Matt Horobin have exactly been idle over the past decade; far from it, indeed.  Rayner has worked with Idjut Boys, Kelvin Andrews and Digs & Woosh amongst many others, and his work on Smith & Mudd’s neglected 2009 gem Le Suivant deserves special mention.  Meanwhile, Horobin’s various genre-hoppings have led him on a journey through alternative rock, downtempo, dub and drum & bass.

Reunited at last, Mark and Matt have opted to showcase two complementary styles on their comeback single.  “Beautiful Thing” is the more conventionally song-structured: a gently sung meditation on the healing power of a new love, it sits within the lineage of Zero 7/Groove Armada chillout, but its deftly judged sense of restraint and space – like much of James Blake’s recent work, the track sometimes ebbs away into almost complete silence – keeps the dangers of cloying blandness at bay. “Hot Dub” is the longer, more abstract piece, which takes its time to build from skeletal near-nothingness into an eerie, almost mournful soft skank, led by deep, sliding trombone, while electronic chirrups and whispered vocal fragments dip in and out of the mix.

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