If English trio Darkstar didn't outright disappoint with its 2010 debut LP, North, the group certainly managed to confound expectation. Prior to the album's release, Aiden Whalley and James Young enjoyed a rise to the upper echelons of London's post-dubstep scene, crafting a series of unique singles for the then-burgeoning Hyperdub imprint. "Aidy's Girl Is a Computer," the crowning achievement of this stage of their career, expertly combined the lithe skip of 2-step garage with the mechanized melancholy of early-'80s synth-pop. In spite of the track's appearance on North, however, the album will forever be associated with the arrival of vocalist James Buttery, whose presence caused much of the remainder to lean toward the synth-pop end of Darkstar's sound. The result was a series of sullen, dirgey odes to alienation, with the early rhythmic dexterity and quirky vocoder lines largely discarded. The founding duo were absolutely adamant about this new direction, speaking of scrapping an entire album in favor of it. While this decision may have in turn alienated some of the project's early supporters, it also endeared the group to a new audience, a fact further confirmed by its subsequent signing to Warp. News From Nowhere is the first fruit of this partnership, and shows Darkstar moving even farther away from its London-centric roots.
The move is in part a physical one, the album having been recorded at a house in the Yorkshire countryside. Although hardly ripped from pirate radio, North was at least inflected with a grayish sense of urban malaise. News From Nowhere barely even contains this. The artistic push behind the record has complemented this shift. Its cover is adorned with psychedelically saturated flowers, and the main circulating promotional photo of the group features similar foliage, heavy on lysergic purple. Even the record's title is a nod to a novel about utopian socialism. This is all a far cry from the group's earlier image, which was generally monochrome, cold, and anxious.
Darkstar must at least be awarded for its art direction. On News From Nowhere, it truly sounds as though the trio, at the end of its collective rope on North, realized it would be happier if it abandoned the city and its stresses. News From Nowhere is a record about a second coming-of-age, a bright-eyed and positive embrace of a more simple life. In parts, especially on the opening tracks, this strategy works gorgeously. Buttery's falsetto floats hopefully above the hymnal "Light Body Clock Starter," and sounds angelic on "Timeaway," when it's coupled with beautifully resonant chimes. The highlight of the mock-shambolic "Armonica" comes in the form of its patient, fluttery breakdown, while Buttery anchors the piano-led slow jam "A Day's Pay For A Day's Work," which merges subtle electronic glitch and decay with earnest pop hooks that hint, via woeful lines about "choosing to sacrifice something else in life," at the album's pastoral, communal theme.
The album's second half is not drastically dissimilar from the first, but its two peaks, "Amplified Ease" and "You Don't Need A Weatherman," fall almost laughably close to the sound of recent Animal Collective. The tracks' combinations of quick low-end pulses, layered rounds of chanted vocals, and simple, looping arpeggios are uncannily similar to that group's work. Lyrics about being "a guy just at home," and being "alright on [one 's] own," sound cribbed from Panda Bear's book of normalcy.
These are both fine tracks, and are sure to win the group fans based upon their catchiness alone. But taken within the context of Darkstar's album-oriented direction, they expose a key flaw in the trio's approach. Although he occasionally slips into anonymous wailing, Buttery is a fine vocalist, and Whalley and Young are blatantly inventive thinkers. Amidst a dance scene that was (and still is) almost oppressively prescriptive, Darkstar easily transcended post-dubstep's parameters. Now that the group is faced with a genre and format that can be virtually anything, it meanders between styles. The production is immaculately pretty, but it also tends to swamp the music's thrust, and one ends the album unsure of exactly what Darkstar is anymore. Moving away from the city may have restored the group's optimism, but it has also removed much of the conflict that once made the project so compelling.