Monday, July 28, 2014

album review: 'jungle' by jungle

Let's talk a little about disco.

As a genre, it tends to have a much worse reputation than it really deserves for a lot of wrong reasons. It was scorned because it was dance music made primarily by producers instead of songwriters... but then again, we now live in an era where EDM has become one of the hottest selling genres worldwide. It was hated because it was synthetic and electronic and felt plastic... in other words, like every other genre that touches pop music in the mainstream for the past twenty years. It was loathed because it emerged from the gay dance club scene and thus the backlash that had been seething against that music and much of the black culture that had supported the jazz, funk, and soul of its roots finally had an outlet to explode, and I shouldn't even have to tell you why that backlash was at best misguided and at worst moronic. If we're looking for a more legitimate reason why disco died in the late 70s, it was the same reasons any music trend dies: musical evolution in sound and style; and sheer overexposure.

But given the current musical and political climate and especially the resurgence of soul, dance music and even reggae-inspired tracks on the charts, it wasn't a surprise that acts began jumping towards a new incarnation of disco, even in the underground where with the rise of the internet it has never been easier for unknown acts to snag chart smashes. So with that comes Jungle, a band that began as a viral sensation in 2013 before signing to XL and dropping a debut album they described as 'midtempo 70s-inspired funk'. That, if anything, was enough to attract my interest, so I gave that self-titled debut a few listens: how did it go?

Man, I don't know what I was expecting, but I now know why the hype for this band seems to have completely evaporated, because this album did not click with me whatsoever. And while I'm quite certain some of it is my own personal tastes for certain brands of funk and soul and disco, the other part is that this album is a definite disappointment - which is kind of impressive, because I barely had any expectations for this record in the first place! What we get instead is one of the more odd misfires of the year thus far: a record with a lot of disparate elements and a defiantly unique sound, but one that simply just does not work.

And to explain why, we're going to have to start with the instrumentation and production, which is nowhere near the soulful energy and vigor of funk or even the more languid tempo and energy of g-funk. Instead, we get an odd fusion of dark bass riffs, extremely varied yet stiff percussion, tepid and flat organ lines, and a watery yet atmospheric blend of electronics and fuzz dumped over it. It definitely creates the atmosphere of a jungle - the hot, humid, oppressive reek of a jungle in the middle of summer, and it's about the furthest thing from a dance vibe I've encountered in a long time. It really doesn't help matters the production shoves most of the bass lines to the back in favour of these oily synth melodies which, in all fairness, are actually pretty well composed if they were given a tighter mix, which is overstuffed with effects and clattering noise that creates plenty of atmosphere but little close to a decent groove. But even on the songs that do get a solid groove, the guitar lines sound drowned and the keyboard lines seem much better fit for an chillwave or darkwave track than anything here.

So okay, Jungle's looking to go for a vibe that's dark or sinister or gothic - a vibe completely compromised by the vocals, which are most reminiscent of the fast-paced falsetto of the Bee-Gees. Now history hasn't exactly painted a kind picture of the Bee Gees' musical output, but at their best they wrote some phenomenally tight disco and decent psychedelic pop - but what they never were was gothic or dark, at least not in this mold. And for good reason:  it's hard to have that edgy sexual presence with a falsetto unless you're Prince - and Jungle isn't within spitting distance of that.

Granted, the lyrics really don't help matters, because this is where Jungle's weaknesses are especially highlighted. On top of not exactly being interesting songwriters beyond the perpetual horniness of this vein of dance music, the songwriting is often borderline inept and sure as hell does not create an attractive tone, even the dark moodiness of acts like Depeche Mode. Part of this isn't helped by the general tone of the vocal delivery - which often can come across as more than a little pissy and grating - but the lyrics don't hold up to much either. 'The Heat' puts the lie to its title, because neither partner feels anything close to the right kind of heat in the lyrics and the song makes that sexual frustration the furthest thing from tolerable - or interesting. 'Accelerate' tries to use a series of car metaphors to describe sex, and let me make this clear, Jungle is not Springsteen and they're not within spitting distance of Morrissey's 'Speedway', there was no way they could pull this off. 'Busy Earning' takes a pretty solid groove and squanders it on taunting arrogance, 'Drops' is a drippy, poorly mixed mess that pleads for the girl to come down from her high with no good reason for it, and 'Time' is a straight up sex song that at least manages to work on that level. But the absolute worst track on this record is 'Julia', which features the chorus, 'Julia, I don't know a thing about you / Soon enough you'll be all I ever need'. And yet the verses make it clear that she's 'just a girl' who presumably wants him and yet without warning he can't do a thing without her? Isn't this exactly the sort of song that Weird Al just parodied with 'Jackson Park Express' a few weeks ago?

Now thankfully, there are a few tracks that are pretty decent on this album, mostly in the sex/hookup jam variety or featuring some decent melodies. 'Platoon', 'Time', 'Son of A Gun', these are some decent enough songs, and I liked the grooves on 'Busy Earning' and 'Lucky I Got What I Want'. But here's the point, they're only really in this variety, with little-to-no-depth to be heard beyond it. And for the most part, they don't exactly present an attractive view of the singers, who on half the tracks come across as needy, whiny, and a little insufferable, and on the other half try to come across as arrogant sexual powerhouses, are completely unconvincing, and are even worse. I get the feeling this record would work a lot better in pieces than it does as a whole, because as it is, I'm really not all that impressed by it. I do kind of respect the production for being able to capture this varied sound so vividly, even if I find that sound not particularly likable, but outside of that, it's a 5/10 and barely a recommendation. Folks, if you want decent disco in the mainstream now, there's better stuff than this.

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