Album Review: Mall Grab – What I Breathe

[Looking For Trouble; 2022]

It’s understandable to do a double take when reading that Jordon Alexander, aka Mall Grab, is only now releasing his debut album. The Aussie international party star(ter) has been steadily releasing singles and EPs of catchy lo-fi house that have lit up dance floors and created consistently sold-out crowds during the past six years. 

It was in 2016 that Alexander became so in demand that he transplanted his talents to London, where he has played shows and folded the manifold aural cues into his sound with consistently pleasing results. It’s ultimately behind the decks that he really shines, but his sonic output has also proven mostly brilliant and lasting.

Three or four songs on an EP do not constitute a full-length album, however, especially in this harsh terrain, where an hour’s-worth of tech-house or downtempo is typically sourced for the singles, and the rest is ‘put out to pasture’ where it can properly fade into obscurity. Mall Grab was good enough to get signed to 1080p, though, and his output would not be out of place on labels like Lobster Theremin and Giegling. Does all of this translate to the tools required to turn his debut album into a piece de resistance? 

Alexander himself has indicated that in What I Breathe, “Elements of emotional but hard and pumping club music are intertwined with house, jungle, rave and grime.” This sounds like a lot, but given dance music’s nearly universal penchant for drum ‘n bass, jungle, garage, and rave, it’s no surprise. When done correctly, as on, say, Daniel Avery’s now-classic Drone Logic, it can be downright inspiring.

But Drone Logic, unfortunately, this album is not. Looking at the album cover, there are several clues and indicators of what can be found upon giving its contents a spin. The group of goofy golden retrievers is a reminder that there is always the possibility of having too much of a good thing.

Whereas before, Alexander approached his vocals in the tradition of chopped and screwed hip-hop, but now, his choices here are far more scattered, with much of the former nuance that made his sound appealing all but eradicated. It kind of makes one wish that these dogs were still puppies; that bigger is certainly not always better, and no matter how many times one tries, you’re just not going to get all of those damn dogs to look at the camera all at once.

This crowded approach does not stop at the vocals, either. On tracks like “Metaphysical” Alexander combines an aggressive vocal loop and tumultuous bass sounds over an uninspired Amen break. There are cuts like “I Can Remember it So Vividly” that evoke the 90s rave scene, but the loud production reminds the listener that Alexander has been in his adopted ‘homeland’ for far less time than it takes to pull off this type of song with this type of title. 

Opener, “Hand in Hand Through Wonderland” is one of the album’s several dialed back tracks that offers satisfying glimpses of what could be, with a melancholic, atmospheric bent that gets dropped and mostly left at the bottom of his long list of London inspirations. Tracks like “Love Reigns” comprise bright house-inflected pianos, and several songs later feature live vocals from talents like D Double E, Novelist, Nia Archives, and Turnstile’s Brendan Yates. All of this is in the service of displaying Alexander’s genetic code as a London producer who ‘just had to be there’, but just wasn’t. 

And so, the first Mall Grab album is decidedly too busy and scattered to be much of anything but a letdown for most fans. He would do well to spend time scaling back his big room, major label sound and homing back in on what it is that has built him up such a devoted fanbase. It’s no crime owning a half dozen golden retrievers, but it may be a bit much to always get the sloppy swipe of the tongue across the face when all you really looking for was just a simple, tender cuddle.