Gavin Dunbar (Camera Obscura) Talks Alexis Taylor’s Await Barbarians

I once played my son, who is nine, a Durutti Column album and he complained because he didn't like it, and I said, “But it's art" and, being a bit...

I once played my son, who is nine, a Durutti Column album and he complained because he didn’t like it, and I said, “But it’s art” and, being a bit wide, he replied, “Not all art is beautiful!”

I first discovered Hot Chip back in 2006 when the British band’s second album The Warning came out. It was a great mix of accessible electronic pop music, with one eye on the dance floor and one eye on the radio. It was commercial without being a sellout, interesting without being pretentious, and not avant-garde for avant-garde’s sake. The Warning was basically a collection of good songs, well recorded. It sounds simple, but it also sounded brilliant. You can see their lineage (New Order, Pet Shop Boys), and as much as the kind of pop music I play in Camera Obscura might be fairly different in sound from Hot Chip, I think that what they do is also classic pop.  But it’s the classic pop of strong melodies played electronically and through a different range of influences, many of which I love.

By the time 2008’s Made in the Dark came out, I was DJing in Glasgow and whenever I played their songs, the reaction was incredible. Folks who were more likely to be going crazy for guitar bands were launching themselves onto the dance floor. This was a big crossover time. The UK is very fragmented by musical cliques and niche genres (often due to the way the printed music press push it), so it was genuinely refreshing to see a band breaking out of any preconceived pigeonhole on the strength of their tunes.

So I was looking forward to hearing Await Barbarians, the new solo record from Hot Chipper Alexis Taylor, his second release under his own name. It’s pretty different from what I was expecting, and I was initially wrong-footed by it, but over several listens I’ve balanced the experimental inclinations of this album with what I’m used to hearing from him.

Opener “Lazy Bones” instantly sets an uneasy tone via discordant, pitch-bent piano notes scraping against each other. So this is definitely not pop. Which is fine, not everything should be pop. Even if you’re most well known for polished electronic pop. But this is more like you are being invited into the beginning of someone else’s bad trip.

As the second song, “From the Halfway Line,” progresses, its singular, melancholy guitar and fragile vocal are filled out with a more blissed-out ’70s accompaniment. It’s quite the west coast sound, but a bit more sun-damaged than sun-kissed, and still pretty off-kilter. It brings out more melody but It’s still not pop.

This approach turns out to be the overriding sound of the record. It’s like a big ’70s comedown. The production might have an electronic edge and there are certainly some synths, programmed drums and sequencers in the mix, but the main motifs here are varying degrees of a stripped-down band playing fairly bare and honest songs.

My favorite track is “Without a Crutch” (featured twice here as “Without a Crutch, Pt. 2” and “Without a Crutch, Pt.1,” respectively the third and last song on the album) “Without a Crutch” brings the pace up with a lighter mood, and is probably the closest in feel, if not sound, to what I’d been expecting to hear. It also stopped me thinking this was going to be one long experimental concept work. This is pop. Really well done, laid-back pop.

The album settles back into a fairly downbeat groove after this, swinging gently between murky, often minimal, treated piano, like on the lyrically bleak “Immune System,” to glitchy drum programming underpinning folky arrangements, like on “Dolly and Porter,” which is not dissimilar in sound to King Creosote, both vocally and musically.

Lots of the songs seem to open slow and quiet and build from there, so by the end what began as skeletal has a far rounder arrangement. There is a quiet majesty to “Elvis Has Left the Building,” “Where Would I Be?” and “Am I Not a Soldier?” but the issue here is that these gems are buried between other less accessible pieces, or are so slow-burning that the casual listener is going to turn off and miss the real payoff that comes when the arrangement has bloomed and the track is finished.

Await Barbarians seems to suffer a bit from a lack of direction, because there are some beautiful moments, and some great songs, but sometimes they leave you confused as to why Taylor would want to cover it up with the sound treatments and experimentation. This is definitely a record worth your time, you just have to be prepared to scratch the surface and give it a real listen.

It is always interesting to see how you can push what you do musically, and you certainly don’t want to repeat yourself. Nor would you want to carbon-copy what you do in your main band when you go off to do your own thing. So, with that in mind, we’re left with a record that on the surface sounds very far from pop, but underneath contains some beautifully worked, elegiac, melodic music. It’s fairly bare, often fragile and sometimes even a little uncomfortable. Alexis Taylor’s experimental side project shows not so much that “not all art is beautiful” but that “not all pop is commercial.”


Bass machine with Camera Obscura, DJ, gentleman, Whovian, thrift store manager, geek for music, geek for sci-fi, geek for sitcoms, Petrocelli of the home studio, expert in the art of procrastination, waistcoat-sporting aficionado of the pocket watch, longstanding supporter of the Harry Wraggs and King of Partick. You can follow Camera Obscura on Twitter here and Patrick on Twitter here.