Mount Kimbie are just one of those groups that seem to invite hype and endless excitement everywhere they go, the extent of which is almost ironic given the near-quaintness of their music. But it’s music so gorgeous and complex that it’s not hard to understand why; the duo of Dom Maker and Kai Campos took the steely wireframe structures of dubstep, deconstructed them and rebuilt them out of wood and other organic materials. Their debut Maybes EP on the increasingly-venerated Hotflush label sounded intriguingly homemade, intricately built songs invaded by dusty ambience and ghostly voices. Follow-up Sketches On Glass was slightly more professional, focusing on grooves rather than rustic soundscapes. A year and a half after releasing that first EP, Mount Kimbie present their debut album, a surprisingly brief but carefully orchestrated affair.
One thing must be stated immediately in reference to Crooks & Lovers; this is not a reinvention of Mount Kimbie, nor are they accomplishing anything particularly revolutionary within the context of their already released EPs. Their debut album is simply a more coherent, more focused expression of their sound, but it’s one that is as beautiful as anything else released in the rather nebulous field of dubstep this year, if not likely more. The music here is self-contained and locked away, like some long-abandoned musical box; open it up and you’ll hear the faint ticking of tiny instruments playing away and interacting completely independent of the external world. It’s this insularity that proves the album’s dividing point: while the music here is generally accessible (experience with dubstep not necessary), it’s doesn’t do much to reach out and grab listeners either.
The album opens with one of its three ambient sketches, immediately putting the focus on live instruments and organic samples as claps, vocals and guitar strums are caught up in a staggered, stomping beat. This is a trick repeated in “Would Know,” as the beat trades back and forth with the apocalyptic static that occasionally swallows it up before spitting it back out to resume its uneven walk. Nearly every track has this same progression, which colours Kimbie’s tracks as laborious sketches than proper songs. But what they might lack in progression they make up for in pure density, as each song’s three minutes are packed to the brim with little details. Witness the way the guitar notes sound like they’re falling from the sky on “Before I Move Off” until they eventually form a concrete riff, or how “Field” breaks out of its dub techno trappings with frantically strummed guitar, leaving the digitalized computer world for something more natural.
That’s not to say everything on Crooks & Lovers is the same old guitars-n-dust thing; a few moments on the LP spell a bright future for the duo as they continue to experiment with old influences and new forms. “Blind Night Errand” is the darkest thing they’ve done to date, gurgling with squelchy bile and a bassline that ominously threatens to overturn everything. The album’s penultimate track “Mayor” is the absolute highlight, quite nakedly revealing the influence cohort James Blake is having on their sound; it’s a effortlessly silky piece of funk. Vocals are melted into bent melody lines that almost match the effervescent guitars, as the song tumbles down its plummeting progression chased down by fat hypercolour synth lines that finally wake up the rather sleepy LP for its one moment of red-blooded sensuality (or would be were it not for the childish voices).
While Crooks & Lovers may not be the game-changing redefinition of dubstep and bass music that some hoped it would be, it’s nothing less than great and it doesn’t feel fair to call it anything close to a disappointment. Almost ironically, despite its resistance to any sort of historical musical narrative outside of Mount Kimbie’s own, there’s something about this album that’s stubbornly traditionalist. It’s brief — under forty minutes — something that would fit nicely on a single vinyl LP and even manages to split rather nicely down the middle (the ecstatic fall of “Carbonated” flipping over into the heaving, breathless climb of “Ruby”). Demanding your utmost attention, it defies current musical trends and forces you to listen over, over, and over again, breeding love not through instant gratification but until you feel as comfortable inside the songs as they do in themselves. Mount Kimbie’s skewed take on dubstep is like nothing else out there, and even better, it somehow manages to find populism in insularity; you’ve just got to let your guard down a little bit, because its fragile leanings aren’t exactly going to bust down your door. But aren’t the best things in life the things you work for?