When we tapped Lapalux (a.k.a. Stuart Howard) to assemble an XLR8R podcast last year, the UK talent returned with an eclectic mixed bag of songs that shared little in common, save for an experimental approach to slow-moving composition and lots of low end. A similar sensibility often carries over into his production; clearly, the man has a lot of influences, yet his music stands out thanks to an ability to arrange an impressive number of elements into seductive, bass-heavy, and often pop-leaning songs. While it could be said that the appetite for and frenetic manufacturing of lush, off-kilter beats has somewhat subsided since Howard first released a handful of EPs in 2011 and 2012, he has nonetheless returned to Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label for his first full-length effort, Nostalchic. Listening to the album, it certainly appears that he's staying loyal to the beat-scene zeitgeist.
After delivering a standout performance on "Forgetting and Learning Again," an engrossing pop track from last year's Some Other Time EP, vocalist Kerry Leatham returns for two cuts on Nostalchic. And once again, Lapalux's collaborations with her prove to be among the most captivating songs on the record. "Without You" plays out like a sleepy R&B lullaby, with tri-tone melodies that seem to spin in circles and pockets of silence that bloom into layered vocal harmonies. Leatham returns on album closer "OEA," as Lapalux embeds tiny snippets of her ragged singing into a bobbing beat that eventually disintegrates into a wave of ambience.
That said, Lapalux's skill manipulating the human voice extends beyond his collaborations with Leatham. Throughout the record, his most breathtaking productions often occur when he's working with a vocalist or vocal samples. The soft voice on "Walking Word" that purrs the lines, "When you fall to pieces in my arms/It buries that part of me," delivers one of the album's most unshakeable hooks, and the sparkling instrumental that surrounds it is one of his tightest productions. "Dance (feat. Astrid Williamson)" will be familiar to those who heard Howard's XLR8R podcast—it appeared there as a Lapalux remix of the stripped-down Williamson original. Howard's rendering fills in all of the bare space in the source material with warm, cooing sounds and a dilapidated hip-hop lurch.
Lapalux's productions are never stark or stripped down; if anything, the opposite is true, which is perhaps why his vocal-driven tracks tend to be his most successful. At his best, Lapalux manages to remain in complete control of every bit of sonic minutiae he uses by anchoring them to sturdy beats and catchy vocals. "Swallowing Smoke," for example, embellishes a sturdy rhythmic foundation and recurring vocal sample with so many sheets of glittering noise that each rich detail seems to take on a life of its own.
But occasionally, things go off track, leaving a few songs sounding a bit messy and hard to follow. "Kelly Brook" is a prime example; a shapeless track that overflows with arrhythmic drum hits, skittering cascades of notes, slippery vocal samples, and a haze of synth pads, it ultimately feels sloppy. Likewise, "Flower" is a sprawling jumble of shimmering, yawning noises, chirping vocals, and skittering beats. Organization is clearly an issue here, but what's more important is that these tunes are simply not as memorable as the ones Lapalux imbues with bone-deep grooves and sticky hooks. Those structural elements give listeners something to hold on to, which is key, particularly when he's leading us through such a flurry of sounds and influences. Nostalgic is an exciting journey, but during the moments when Lapalux fails to provide a coherent roadmap, it's a bit too easy for the rest of us to get lost.