So you loved James' smashhit, MTV-darling, coming-soon-to-an-amusement-park-near-you album, Laid. So you loved those catchy radio tunes, "Laid" and "Say Something." The question is, will you love James' new, funky, very impressionistic, very long album, Wah Wah?
The answer is: maybe.
Wah Wah is Laid's dark side. The snooty liner notes tell us that Wah Wah was actually produced concurrently with Laid, reflecting the experimental jams which spawned the more structured Laid songs. According to producer Brian Eno in the aforementioned notes, the tracks on Wah Wah "took shape out of bewildering deserts of confusions, consolidated, lived gloriously for a few minutes and then crumbled away."
Luckily, the music on Wah Wah does not take itself as seriously as Eno apparently does. The 23 tracks reflect two general moods: one, a dreamy, new-age rain-foresty wash of sound over which an cerie voice intones barely audible lyrics; the other, an abrasive, Achtung-Baby industrialesque sound with distorted, staticky vocals.
A few times on Wah Wah, the songs achieve coherence despite the best efforts of the band, and the result is hauntingly intense. The second track, "Pressure's On," is one such song: the weirdly hypnotic synthesizer, the surreal, breathy vocals and the only occasionally comprehensible lyrics combine to create a liquid, seductive, trippy sound. A later track, the aptly titled "Rhythmic Dreams," has a similar effect, but relies on a steady jungly drumbeat and mantra-like vocals to give the piece shape and draw in the listener. These and other tracks utilize non-musical noises, like dripping water, crickets, and talking voices, to form a foundation of sound under the music itself As in a dream, the sound is just barely tangible yet gives the music its extra potency.
Wah Wah's other style--murky, cold, abrasive--has the same exhilarating-yet-numbing power of much of U2's latest albums. The third track "Jam J," seems lifted right from Zooropa, with driving rhythms, snarly lyrics obscured by feedback, and angry bursts of guitars breaking through the mess.
At other times Wah Wah incorporates unexpected sounds from different time period and cultures for a totally unique effect: track ten, "Gospel Oak," relies heavily on harpsichord-like synthesiser, with disorienting results; many songs, especially "Say Say Something," show a heavy Indian influence.
While many of the songs on Wah Wah are interesting, engrossing and innovative, the album is not without its flaws. For one thing, it's really, really long (23 tracks), and since the music is free-form and improvisational, after a while the songs start to run together and sound the same. You can only listen to so much of Wah Wah in one sitting. Also, it takes some concentration to get into many of the grooves; if you're not in the mood to be "set adrift", the meandering tunes may just lose your interest. Lastly, all the disembodied chatter, insect noises, industrial rumbling and bells ringing may start to freak you out after a while. Wah Wah is not ear candy, like much of Laid; it's meant to get inside your head, and that may be a bit more than you're in the market for when you slap down your money at HMV.