Saturday, August 18, 2007

Two Fates Entwined Under The Sun‎

Blue States - Stereo 99

There’s not much margin for error when you’re setting up a record label. Unless you’re backed by a major or have got plenty of money to lose, it’s imperative you get it right straight away or pretty soon the money will vanish and you’ll be sliding into a pit of debt with the thousands of other labels that never quite made it. Luckily for the Jacob brothers Ollie and Matt, founders of the north London-based Memphis Industries, half-Greek man mountain Andy Dragazis aka Blue States sent them some home demos back in 1998, which they liked very much. The first release for both label and artist came in 1999 – the ‘Blue States Forever EP’, which saw the artist favourably compared with the likes of Zero 7, Bent and Lemon Jelly in the weird netherworld of downtempo and chill-out. The debut album followed in 2000, and ‘Nothing Changes Under the Sun’ (‘Stereo 99’ from that awesome debut is posted above) really put both label and artist on the map, receiving rave reviews and selling in the sort of quantities that would make even the major labels turn an envious shade of green. The success of ‘Nothing Changes…’ gave Ollie and Matt the financial building blocks to establish their label, and allowed Memphis Industries to grow into its current incarnation – a brilliant imprint with a varied roster, which now includes other success stories including Field Music and the Go Team!.

For Dragazis, the journey was a bit bumpier. His second album 'Man Mountain' (featuring vocals from Ty Bulmer, who would go on to form New Young Pony Club) was licensed to XL Recordings, and away from the homey environs of Memphis, expectations for Blue States to crossover in the manner of Groove Armada and Zero 7 grew. The album was another corker, packed with string-laden gems and including the haunting ‘Season Song’, which featured on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s zombie horror flick ‘28 Days Later’. However, the anticipated crossover failed to materialise and Dragazis headed back to Memphis where he made the decision to move away from the tiresome downtempo tag and formed a proper three-piece indie rock guitar band with a couple of mates. The resulting album was the awkward ‘The Soundings’, heavily influenced by a teenage love of Ride and My Bloody Valentine, but with Dragazis’s orchestral arrangements still intact. But the vocal delivery of Chris Carr divided many people, with a contingent of Blue States’ loyal fans still longing for a return to the good ol’ downtempo days of ‘Nothing Changes…’. The ostensible failure of his third long player seemed to leave Blue States in ashes, with Dragazis licking his wounds and opting to build his own studio in Whitechapel, with the intention of producing other bands. He started by recording his friends’ The Eighteenth Day of May’s debut album for RykoDisc and went onto co-produce former label mates The Pipettes’ album for Interscope. It was during his time writing and recording with The Pipettes that Andy decided to give Blue States another crack, but this time on his own.

Blue States - Holding Ground

This brings us up to date and to the fourth Blue States album ‘First Steps Into…’, released by Memphis Industries on September 3rd, 2007. ‘First Steps Into…’ is a cracking return to form for Dragazis, feeling rather like a return from whence he came as Blue States is, to all intents and purposes, a one-man band again – albeit with drumming assistance from Sam Walker and backing vocals from former squeeze Serena Strong. Despite harking back to past glories, ‘First Steps Into…’ is definitely a progression. The album opens with the otherworldly ‘Allies’, which comes on like a bizarre collaboration between Coldplay and Joe Meek – seemingly a chiming torch song ripe for lighter waving at festivals, but in its heart, a weird, electronic pop song from a distant planet, with chipmunks on helium singing the anthemic chorus. Most other labels would probably have demanded 9 more songs like this and waited for a Top 30 album and invitation onto ‘Later… with Jools’, but Memphis Industries are more than happy to indulge their old mate Dragazis’ true gifts, so instead we get a varied 13-track album of considerable craft and melodic wonder.

‘First Steps Into…’ heads back to the Vangelis territory first visited on his 2000 debut with songs like ‘First Steps… Last Stand’ and ‘The Electric Compliment’, which remind of an updated take on the incidental music to the amusingly dubbed 1980s Euro dramas I watched as a kid or even the cult cartoon ‘The Mysterious Cities of Gold’. The former is propelled by a funky drumbeat and buzzing bass, with rippling harpsichords and swelling Spector-esque production. Elsewhere the instrumental, cinematic sweep continues as ‘Red and Shine’ distorts the beats and turns the bass up, and ‘What Can Be Done to Right a Wrong’ has a breezy, Northern Soul tempo and is probably only lacking a vocal to turn it into a summer hit.

‘Holding Ground’ is a slicker, more synthetic take on My Bloody Valentine’s sound, as a faraway vocal is joined by fuzzy guitars and a polished, strident piano line, and ‘Down the Days’ sees the return of the otherworldly Joe Meek electronic production and chipmunk vocals, in a companion piece to the album opener ‘Allies’. The stunning ‘100’s and 1000’s’ is another standout track, as 3-minutes of ambience and orchestral wonder transforms into a psych-pop song worthy of The Polyphonic Spree in their prime. The album concludes with the rocky ‘Last of Old England’, which builds from the bells of a Greek orthodox church, into a driving, string-drenched instrumental of some aplomb.

If I have one complaint, it’s that I did find it hard initially to warm to this album, despite its creator’s obvious brilliance. There’s just something about music made by these genius musical auteurs with their own singular vision that is sometimes difficult to love. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that its creation precluded collaboration in the recording process in a traditional ‘gang of four’ style, in which complex songs come from multiple personalities. Anyway, this minor gripe certainly shouldn’t take anything away from this terrific album. Dragazis seems to finally be comfortable back home at Memphis Industries, and the fates of the label and artist that seem so inextricably linked have come together once more to deliver some nuggets of musical gold.

The video for 'Allies'...

'First Steps Into...' is released by Memphis Industries on September 3rd, 2007. Pre-order the CD from Memphis Industries for £7.99
Buy Blue States catalogue at bargain prices from the Memphis Industries shop
Blue States website
Blue States My Space