This review would probably be better informed if I was an authority on 70s funk and prog-rock. Sadly I am not, although I do consider myself something of an authority on modern electronica. Due to this, I simultaneously deify Thomas Jenkinson (Anyone who claims that a betterfive-minute pop song than ‘Do You Know Squarepusher’ has ever been recorded can fuck right off) and bemoan much of his intermittent descents into “real” musicianship and the creation of music through (comparatively) conventional forms, the most extreme of which he seems to be going through now.
In the liner notes for Squarepusher’s superlative debut L.P. Feed Me Weird Things, Richard D. James (Aphex Twin to you and me), announced that Jenkinson brought us “the sound of sound”, referring to how Squarepusher’s musicality was an evolution of musique concrete. He was a facilitator of abstract sounds into more accessible digestibility. He’d both expand your mind and make your ass shake; now he seems satisfied with only the latter,if that.
Admittedly, though, I am perhaps being unfair. I saw the man in concertfor the first time earlier this year and I can honestly say it was one of the best gigs I have ever experienced, and “experienced” is certainly the word. The majority of the set was new material (much of which is unfortunately absent from this record), and it certainly fulfilled both of my aforementioned criteria (expand my mind? It near enough blew my eardrums).
A few of the tracks on Just a Souvenir are recognisable from his recent live sets, and these were the tracks, for example ‘A Real Woman’ and ‘Delta V’, which, while perfectly danceable, took the crowds by surprise and leftthem slightly bemused. After hearing these tracks, with their apparent lack of any synthesised elements, I recall excitedly spreading the word that Squarepusher had gone rock ‘n’ roll, especially to those people I knew who find the heavily electronic element of his oeuvre a turn-off. At the time, though, I had no idea how right I was.
This isn’t the first time Jenkinson has eschewed such musical mod-cons as samplers and sequencers in his music, but on previous releases these Luddite tendencies have resulted in music which is either deeply evocative (as in Music is Rotted One Note) or provides juxtaposition and respite to and from an assault of technology (as in Ultravisitor). In the case of Just A Souvenir, though, it simply results in mediocrity.
The record opens with ‘Star Time 2’, which, considering Jenkinson’s intimate acquaintance with the world of jazz, is most likely a nominal sequel to Sun-Ra’s track from his 1959 album The Nubians of Plutonia. Apart from the obvious jazz influence, which is almost always present in his work, the fact that it’s named after a Sun-Ra song is also notable due to the fact that this record is essentially Sun-Ra without the innovation. This is Squarepusher in a hilarious costume flexing some funky spaced-out jams. It might be fun for him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has to show everyone else. On his website he goes into great detail explaining how this is a concept album based on a vivid daydream he had about the world’s perfect rock band, and that basically sums it up. Just A Souvenir is the sound of Thomas Jenkinson playing air guitar in front of his bedroommirror.
Despite its title providing a jump-off for my negatively critical analogy, the piece itself is one of the album’s standout tracks. An ideal companionpiece to his discography’s other opening tracks with immensely catchyhooks (e.g. ‘Cooper’s World’ from 1997’s Hard Nomal Daddy and ‘Hello Meow from’ 2006’s Hello Everything), ‘Star Time’ is different from the rest of Just A Souvenir. Unlike many of the proceeding tracks, the drum sounds within this song could be straight from a Roland TR-909 drum machine, and the driving melody is a riff performed on a synthesiser, an instrument which is otherwise largely relegated to background ambience on this record.
The album’s second track, ‘The Coathanger’, is a good counterpart for ‘RedHot Car’, the closest thing that Squarepusher has ever had to a hit single.Both have a skiffling 2-step beat and nonsensical lyrics vocodered to the point at which they lose all semblance of humanity. Such a comparison, though, does not reflect favourably upon the new track because, while ‘RedHot Car’ is an insanely invigorating inverted U.K. garage assault on the senses, ‘The Coathanger’ borders on novelty. It is perfectly conceivable to imagine Noel Fielding and Julian Barret performing the exact same song on an episode of the Mighty Boosh. Perhaps one in which everyone starts worshiping a huge coathanger.
Another track on the album which strays into similarly innofensive jazz-funk territory is ‘Potential Govaner’. It starts off promisingly, its stuttering swivelling beats giving the impression of a less-confrontational ‘Full Rinse’ (from Squarepusher’s 1997 classic BigLoada), but by fifty seconds the sound of a finger-clicking invades and after this it can only get worse.
One of the most notable diversions from any previous Squarepusher sounds on Just A Souvenier, is ‘A Real Woman’. Aside from his reverent cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, this is probably the most straightforward pop song Jenkinson has ever recorded. An existential angular art-rock ditty with interludes of classical guitar fingering, the only indication that its author is one of the most respected and pioneering figures in modern electronic music are the heavily treated vocals which are as robotic as ever. It sounds something like Daft Punk fronting Minutemen.
Following ‘A Real Woman’ is ‘Delta V’, an admirable track if only for the fact that it is an earnest attempt to recreate the spasmodic IDM for which Squarepusher has become such an infamous paragon (despite the immensely eclectic nature of his output) with live instrumentation. Jenkinson can rival Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale in the mean sticksman department, and on this track he displays these skills, beating those skins with a ferocity almost equal to the cut-up amens in that junglist anthem to endall junglist anthems of his, ‘Come on My Selector’.
Later comes ‘Planet Gear’, which rollicks along upon live drums, again providing a tempo to match that of a standard frenetic amen break. On this track, Jenkinson’s uncanny knack with a melody is initially evident, since the fuzzy guitar line which dominates the top-end of the track (after a short intro) seems to exude a sort of simple adolescent yearning familiar from such former wonders as Feed Me Weird Things’. Unfortunately, this soon deteriorates into the kind of indulgent riffing which only fat, greasy-haired fucks in Iron Maiden t-shirts who spend all their time in the local guitar shop talking about frets will ever really care about. Ironically, though, this track is also the closest the record gets to drill & bass, when at roughly two minutes, fifty seconds Jenkinson decides to drop some electronic manipulation on the drums. A few beat reversals and one snare rush do not breakcore make though, and soon the track continues on its former trajectory (and it ain’t ‘Greenways’).
This theme spills over onto the next track, ‘Tensor in Green’, which opens with wailing cyclical guitar histrionics and then moves on to a series of scuzzy arpeggios before breaking it all down in a deceptively soulful fashion only to get all frantic again. It is followed by ‘The Glass Road’, which is essentially more of the same, just not as good. This all amounts to what you might call car-chase music. That is, it’s what you might call car-chase music if you hadn’t heard Anstromm-Feck 4 from the Do You Know Squarepusher L.P.
Elsewhere, the album mellows considerably. For example, ,Open Society, is a diverting enough guitar ‘n’ effects interlude, and the record ends with four compositions relying heavily on acoustic guitar. All of these are rather pleasant but pack nothing of the emotional punch of similar material which he has produced in the past, for example Ultravisitor’s utterly devastating ballad ‘Iambic 9 Poetry’.
How this album would fare critically if it didn’t stand in the shadow of such an incredible discography is of course a question which will always be hypothetical, especially for a reviewer so enamoured of said backcatalogue as this one. Suffice to say, though, that when one of the greatest cyberpunks of our time is playing classical covers of Yes songs (As he is on the final track, ‘Yes Sequitur’) something’s probably gone very wrong.