All Good Soldiers
As a performer, Mo’Wax Records founder James Lavelle has seen the best of times and the worst of times. Leading the electronic-music collaborative UNKLE, he helped put together their cult classic 1998 debut Psyence Fiction and their dead-on-arrival 2003 follow-up Never, Never, Land. In a 2006 interview¹ with Scotland’s The Skinny, Lavelle asserted that the first album saw UNKLE doing hip-hop, the second was UNKLE-tronica, and third album War Stories would be their take on singer-songwriter rock.
Part of the appeal of Psyence Fiction was DJ Shadow’s presence on the UNKLE roster, contributing the moody mixing that had blown up on his Endtroducing… album two years prior. The first War Stories single “Burn My Shadow” somehow hooks in listeners as it subtly acknowledges his absence, the vocals of The Cult’s Ian Astbury and the instrumentation all approximating a Shadow construct from obscure vinyl.
Beyond that, the crew led by Lavelle and coproducer Richard File (in his last act before committing to his solo work) replace the purely synthetic sounds of past UNKLE albums with in-studio arrangements. “Restless” finds UNKLE mimicking the Chemical Brothers, Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age singing nonsense above the arena rock loops. Gothic atmospherics inform “Morning Rage” and “Twilight,” the latter assisted by 3D of Massive Attack. The Duke Spirit, meanwhile, use “Mayday” to improve upon Republica’s one-hit wonder “Ready to Go,” this track suited more for a sweaty barroom stage than a sports highlight reel.
War Stories overall is full of a bluesy stomp and soulful swagger that is compatible with 21st-century technology. On UNKLE’s scenic route through the land of phat beats, that’s a welcome twist and turn back from being lost.