Album Review: Loraine James – Reflection

[Hyperdub; 2021]

Few music terms are as archaic, constrained and decisively stupid as ‘IDM’ (‘Intelligent Dance Music’), and using it without so much as an asterisk attached reveals at least some form of elitism. Assuredly, we’re not here to talk about semantics, but to discuss the work of Loraine James. This fast-rising UK producer/artist has intrinsically broken down codified styles of dance music. James’ second album, 2019’s For You And I, filtered experimental dance music through the obtuseness of punk rock, often using expressive pop hooks as launchpad to explore the fringes of breakbeat, UK garage, hip hop, ambient and drum’n’ bass.

In her spirited and skillful vocabulary, ‘experimental’ never means ‘inaccessible’. Ever since getting her mittens on a Novation Launchpad, James has been wielding her production chops with the same whimsy as an improv jazz cat. She has split her output between excellent impromptu EP releases that scratched one particular itch while at the same time harnessing a more focussed vision for For You And I’s much-anticipated follow-up, Reflection. Before even hearing a single note, behold the striking artwork, which somehow reminds this scribe of James Cameron’s underrated blockbuster film The Abyss. In that film, aliens are able to manipulate water – an essential building block of life – into various intricate shapes. And musically, Reflection feels very much an extension of that notion.

Gone are the corrosive, visceral edges that have typified many of James’ most exhilarating releases. Reflection is a streamlined record that embraces a more cerebral minimalism, oftentimes stretching itself so thin that you hear just the serpentine, stuttering beat struggling like a scarab laying on its back. It indeed reflects the fragmented times in which the album was conceived: the absence of places of gathering where people can feed off of each other’s energy and fan the flames of inspiration. Despite the rather prosaic sonic space James operates in, she still feeds on the frantic, restless energy perpetually stirring from within. “Let’s Go” pretty much strikes like a pillow scream to overzealously kickstart things, even though the track is one big scramble of clattering breakbeats and stabbing synths.

The skeletal “Simple Stuff” strikes as an inner monologue to herself: “I like the simple things / what does that bring to me?,” she wonders. It feels like a concentrated attempt to try and see how resourceful she can be with just the bare essentials at her disposal, a plight anyone this past year could surely identify with. Despite the erratic stop-start nature of her productions, her use of spoken words leaves just enough breadcrumbs on the trail to make you want to follow her into the deep end.

James has experimented freely and frequently with the way her music can accommodate the human voice, and when paired up with an artist well-versed in vocal performance, the results are often as intoxicating as they are fascinating. Frequent collaborator Le3 bLACK, clear and present on “Black Ting”, expertly tangos with James’ mastery of the drums with poetry that draws as much from hyper specific experiences as universal thought. It’s music that deliberately leaves space and welcomes you in said space, which is such a generous thing for music this exploratory to convey.

The house-inflected, percussive “Insecure Behaviour And Fuckery” does the same thing with featured vocalist Nova, firing off stream of consciousness cascade of impressions with the same rapid fire velocity as a social media feed, touching base with toxic male behavior, The Black Madonna and friendship as a form of sanctuary.

“Self Doubt (Leaving The Club Early)”‘s murky, spooky atmospherics reminds a bit of the Boards Of Canada track “Sixtyten”, and is undoubtedly a big centrepiece of Reflection. In it, James explores that strange intermediate zone between reacting outwardly and listening inwardly: it’s a quandary that has stuck with us ever since streaming platforms allowed us to hear the music we want to hear at any moment. The heart-wrenching thing about this song is how that thought process remains, bereft of logic: especially as a performer not at all interested in pandering to the pleasure zones of her audience and only chasing the exact sounds that shape her current train of thought. She playfully reaches out to the listener on the other side, telling them she is well-aware of that insurmountable chasm: “Hate the music that I’m playing / That is why you’re not staying / That is why there’s no dancing.”

Funnily enough, “Self Doubt” is followed up with one of the more exuberant sounding tracks on Reflection, the Baths-featuring “On The Lake Outside”, in which brief strides of effervescent pop levity floats between liquified beats like clusters of lotus flowers. Indeed, Reflection is an honest document of a strange period: James purposefully reels in her maximalist whims to create tracks that outline those familiar pandemic-enhanced thoughts of isolation. The pacing of the album is done with an almost cinematic expertise: the prolonged, barren tension of “Change” finds a woozy, warm release in “Running Like That”, which once again flaunts James’ ability to forge deft, idiosyncratic proxies for existing slam-dunk pop hooks.

It’s no surprise how closer “We’re Building Something New”, featuring Iceboy Violet, immediately bleeds into opener “Built To Last”, forming a cycle of sonic exploration that summarizes James’ spectacular haywire vision in all its extremes. On Reflection, we truly see the breadth of her resourcefulness as an artist: both as translator and purveyor of gut feeling. The elemental building blocks are all you need to shape something completely new.