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CD Review: Coldcut – Sound Mirrors

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Guitars… repetitive drum machine patterns… indie rock-ish vocals about dialing a phone and going to work… did I mention guitars? This wasn’t exactly what I expected to hear when listening to Coldcut’s new album Sound Mirrors, the pioneering electronica duo’s first full-length effort in almost nine years.

But that is indeed what you get on the first track, and you’re going to hear many, many more vocalists too, including Roots Manuva, Annette Peacock, and Robert Owens. In fact, the majority of this album’s 12 tracks are basically 3-to-5 minute iPod-friendly “pop songs” complete with lyrics, hooks, choruses, and danceable 4/4 beats.

Well, damn — that kind of sucks. I was thoroughly prepared to dismiss Sound Mirrors as a major disappointment from this legendary duo… but then I decided to reflect upon my expectations: Why were they so high? Why do I equate “Coldcut” with greatness? And what kind of cold cuts taste best on white bread?

When you really think about it, Coldcut (a.k.a. Jonathan More and Matt Black) haven’t really given us much in the way of “original material” to compare this music with. Their last album, Let Us Play!, was a hit-or-miss eclectic hodgepodge of semi-experimental jazzy electronica, much of it derived from samples and influenced by collaborators such as Jello Biafra, Bernard Purdie, and Steinski. Probably the best thing about the album was “More Beats and Pieces,” a breakbeat cut-and-paste/sample-and-scratch fest in the tradition of their coveted 1987 single “Hey Kids, What Time is It?” and (naturally) the original “Beats and Pieces” — and all of these are exciting feats of dazzling production skill. (Actually now that I think about it, probably the very greatest thing to come out of Let Us Play! was the Cornelius remix of “Atomic Moog 2000″ on Let Us Replay!)

The other Coldcut claims to fame are their incredible ability to sequence and combine other artists’ tracks to form a unified mix (best heard on the awe-inspiring 70 Minutes of Madness and their Solid Steel radio show) and, of course, founding the revered Ninja Tune record label — home to an impressive roster of underground “trip hop”/”acid jazz” artists including Amon Tobin, The Herbaliser, Cinematic Orchestra and Mr. Scruff. (Coldcut also developed the VJamm software tool which I know nothing about, but I’m sure it’s pretty cool.)

So essentially, music-wise, Coldcut has consistently delivered mindblowing mixes, radical remixes, innovative productions, cool compilations, and zany cut-up collages. Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise, then, that Sound Mirrors feels more like a collection of unrelated collaborations than an actual “Coldcut album” — but maybe that’s what a “Coldcut album” actually is. Clearly most of the “featured artists” here are in the mood to craft poppy/clubby dance tunes, and More and Black happily comply… and if it’s expertly produced electro-pop you seek, you’ll be happy too. If you’re expecting to hear virtuoso studio wizardry and wild cut-and-paste sonic mayhem, though, you’ll be somewhat disappointed. (Incidentally, the album’s packaging is terribly flimsy and hard to manage, and the fold-out poster-style lyrics/credits sheet is nearly unreadable… but you do get a Coldcut.net sticker to put on your skateboard.)

There are a few tracks that hint at the Coldcut I was hoping to hear. “Mr. Nichols” and “Boogieman,” featuring spoken word by Saul Williams and Amiri Baraka respectively, are rather edgy sonic soundscapes refreshingly free of cliches. And the album ends well with a pair of atmospheric, mostly instrumental tracks: the title tune “Sound Mirrors” and “This Island Earth” — an agreeably breezy, Air-esque track with nicely layered vocal harmonies by Mpho Skeef and Don Freeman (yes, Mpho Skeef — that is not a typo…)

Overall, though, this is basically a “mainstream” electronica/pop record — easy on the ears and fun for the feet. If that’s the Coldcut you crave, look no further…. but if you have an appetite for “Even More Beats and Pieces,” you’ve come to the wrong deli.

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  • Scott Butki

    I thought Cold Cut did mostly remixes. I remember them doing, I think, some Everything But the Girl remixes, for example.
    Based on your review, I’ll steer cleer of getting this album.