The music industry is a bubble. Actually, it’s like several bubbles inside one another. It seems that the further away from the centre you are, the easier it is to be relaxed about music and just hear things on the radio and like them, not caring about anything other than the song itself. Who cares what Lana Del Rey said to The Guardian? Who is Lana Del Rey anyway? That seems like bliss. But as you burst through the walls of those internal bubbles, one by one, you start to know more, and care more.
At some point, enjoyment of music becomes more than just “Do I like it?” Your interest in a band and your relationship with them and their music become complex and challenging. Obviously, to a lot of people that’s great — being knowledgeable about things you’re passionate about is generally considered a good thing — but it also means you have a lot more shit to wade through. These days, I’m not sure where I sit in the bubble. One thing I know for sure is that, being in a band, at one point I found myself closer to the centre than I liked. No one wants to see the way the sausage is made, let alone party with the pig.
I discovered Jungle last month at a festival. My sister was desperate to see them and incredulous (and slightly smug) that I hadn’t heard them. I didn’t know much other than that the music is written by two guys, Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, and they play with several other musicians live. Their self-titled debut reminds me of a ’70s cop film soundtrack — it makes me think of coiffed curls and leather jackets that are too short in the arms. It could be played on a boombox in Harlem in the blazing summer, with kids drinking water from a fire hydrant — you know, basically this picture.
The first time I played the album, I immediately suspected that Jungle might not be from America, because this feels like a portrait of a time and place by people who definitely have never been there. And yep, turns out they’re from London.
And that’s the contradiction at the heart of Jungle’s debut. It has the feel, the sounds, the general brushstrokes of ’70s funk and soul, but it’s resolutely an outsider looking in. It’s a digital interpretation rather than a recreation, and the band themselves nod to this — one of their songs is called “Smoking Pixels.” It’s retro, not vintage. And it’s not just the Studio 54 era they’re emulating — there are shades of Daft Punk, Prince and even ’80s British new-wave pop band Fun Boy Three.
On “The Heat,” they layer fuzzy samples of slowed-down vocals and American police sirens over wobbly synths and distorted guitars, but wobbly and distorted in the sense of “my friend lent me this album they recorded off the radio onto a tape,” rather than being reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine. The song is wrapped in a haze of warm distortion, lending it a beautifully thick, nostalgic texture. It manages to both uplift and haunt the listener.
“Julia,” one of the standout tracks, is the perfect illustration of how great it can be when British kids get their hands messy with American pop culture; they start with a big fat synth line descended from Manchester and Factory Records and then weave in some gorgeous falsetto vocals which sound like they could have been sampled from an old tape in the back of a cupboard at Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio. Obviously, it’s always easy to dip into what has come before, as it’s already been crowdsourced. You have the data to reassure you people will like it, but you have to do more than just re-create what’s come before. Jungle make dance music for people who fetishise the past but live resolutely in the future, and they do it really, really well.
Lyrically, the songs are simple: Lloyd-Watson and McFarland sing things like “You’re all I’ll ever need” or “You can’t get enough.” And then repeat them. A lot. For these two, the focus is on the groove and creating a mood and a soundscape, rather than perfecting the art of the pop song. This is music to dance to, music for the city late at night. But that doesn’t mean that dancing is the only thing on their minds.
My favourite track, and I know this because it’s the one that has been played the most times on my phone, is “Lemonade Lake,” the final song, which is as sweet and effervescent as the title suggests. It bounces along, synths popping, samples hissing, but, unusually for Jungle, the lyrics hint at a melancholy that goes beyond their usual well-trodden simplicity: “Every day and every night/Cos I don’t know what went wrong/I miss you.” It’s austere and gorgeous. And for the first time you start to wonder if this isn’t just a dance album, if perhaps it’s actually a break-up album, a Blood on the Tracks for the London 2014 generation. It would be so easy to dismiss Jungle as late-night, “I’ll see you in the dance tent” festival-fodder, but there is some depth here, depth which will hopefully be explored even further on their second album.
This is a great debut. I’d tape it off the radio for you and lend you the cassette. Hell, I’d even consider re-entering one of those bubbles closer to the centre of the music industry in order to see them live — although I suspect that, with the hype and buzz surrounding Jungle at the moment, that bubble is going to be seriously cramped.