When the noirish atmospheres and narcotic beats of downtempo electronica first surfaced in the early 1990s, a broad audience embraced the hazy hip-hop sounds made by the likes of Massive Attack, Portishead, and the Bay Area's own DJ Shadow. Before long, it seemed as if opiated rhythms and moody ambience were oozing out of stereos in every cafe and restaurant across the globe. And therein lay the problem: Those pioneers spawned legions of lesser imitators who pummeled the basic template to death, dumbing the style down into bland audio wallpaper ready-made for car commercials.
UK production duo Soulsavers breathes new life into the often-tired genre by looking beyond musical boundaries for inspiration on its sophomore album, It's Not How Far You Fall, It's The Way You Land. Studio mavens Rich Machin and Ian Glover touch on the cinematic sweep and compressed drum loops of classic downtempo, but deliver a resonant update of American roots music. They weave a dark tapestry around the whiskey-scarred baritone of collaborator Mark Lanegan.
"The sound I was going for was a mixture of folk, blues, country, and gospel — stuff that's been around for a long time," Machin explains. "I'm trying to put it in a more modern context."
Given that aim, it's not surprising Soulsavers angled from the start to bring in Lanegan and his gravel-throated gravitas. Though perhaps better known in alt-rock circles for fronting Seattle band Screaming Trees and adding his distinctive croon to some of the best songs in the Queens of the Stone Age catalog, Lanegan has explored a broad range of styles between his solo efforts and myriad side projects. The dark-hearted blues and country from his 1994 album Whiskey for the Holy Ghost pegged him as an ideal candidate for the Soulsavers' new recording.
"I'd been a big fan of his solo work for quite some time," Machin says. "Once I found out that we had a mutual friend, I specifically wrote a couple of ideas I thought he'd sound cool on and passed it his way. Fortunately he was into it." An initial trip to Los Angeles established the fruitful relationship between the two musicians that led to a deeper collaboration. "At the point in time when we first sat down to work on tracks, I didn't know if it was going to be for an album or whatever," Machin recalls. "The chemistry really dictated doing more stuff."
The power of the resulting recording stands as a testament to that chemistry. Opener "Revival" sets the bar high with Lanegan's aching plea for redemption over almost-funereal organ as his voice entwines with gospel backing vocals: "I need you so, it's sin/Put an end to my suffering."
Echoing the themes of transgression and penance that fueled Johnny Cash's best work, the album swings from the throbbing menace of "Ghosts of You & Me" and "Paper Money" to three somber petitions for salvation that make up the core of the album. The cover tunes — "Spiritual" from the group Spain, Lanegan's own "Kingdoms of Rain," and Neil Young's "Through My Sails" (featuring Bonnie "Prince" Billy on sweet harmony vocals) — boldly ditch the gritty drum loops heard on earlier songs to let the weight of the singer's sepulchral delivery carry the album's momentum. A version of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations" transforms the country-blues track into a haunting piano ballad that brings the record to an immensely satisfying close.
With the widespread acclaim being heaped on It's Not How Far You Fall, some critics are already clamoring for Lanegan to work with Soulsavers on a follow-up. For his part, Machin would have no hesitation: "He's the kind of person, if he ever called me up to do something, I'd do it." Here's hoping Lanegan finds the time in his busy schedule to revisit this partnership in the near future.