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The Shortwave Set - Replica Sun Machine

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Artist: The Shortwave Set

Album: Replica Sun Machine

Label: Wall of Sound

Review date: Jul. 3, 2008

There are times when I think the music business should heed the old adage about too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the soup. The lamentable phenomenon of “supergroups” – monstrous collectives of rock virtuosos competing for masturbation rights – are perhaps the best example of this, but today’s celebrity “superproducers” can be just as culpable (i.e. Timbalake and Timbaland’s recent massacre of Madonna).

The Shortwave Set proved they were quite capable of cooking their own soup with their 2005 debut The Debt Collection (on Independiente), an ingeniously ramshackle collision of low-fi electronica with old-timey melodies. Recorded on a pauper’s budget and taking its inspiration (as well as many of its vintage samples and instruments) from the junk shop the trio purportedly run in South London, The Debt Collection was folksy, familiar and oddly displaced in time, like your British grandmum’s dusty Victorian parlor room. Though largely overlooked in a year when most indie groups were scrambling to be the Franz Ferdinand clones of the week, the debut nonetheless won its share of devoted fans, among them Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who signed on to helm the group’s sophomore effort.

Recorded in sunny L.A. under the auspices of Mr. Mouse, and featuring arrangements and orchestration by art-rock legends Van Dyke Parks and John Cale, Replica Sun Machine is less an evolution than a complete re-invention of the Shortwave Set. The band seem to have left their shabby chic behind in England, eschewing turntablist David Farrell’s claustrophobic sample collages in favor of a spacious, swirling, glam-inspired sound that owes more to Bowie (the space capsule-sounding opener “Harmonia”), Pink Floyd, and the french band Air (the very Moon Safari-like “House of Lies”) than to Parks or Cale. The last two may actually have done more harm than good, with Parks overpowering the pretty “Yesterdays to Come” with a dramatic score, while Cale drowns “Replica” in dissonant violin. Even the much-touted Danger Mouse collaboration comes to fruition only on the excellent “I Know,” which pairs a catchy descending vocal with a Gnarls Barkley-esque backbeat. Elsewhere, Burton’s contributions are ambiguous at best.

The Shortwave Set occasionally allow their retro influences to carry over into camp (the brazen Abba-ness of the admittedly nostalgia-themed “Now Til ’69” is enough to make your jaw drop from the sheer audacity of it), and the twee group vocals of Andrew Pettitt and Swedish-born singer Ulrika Bjorsne are an acquired taste for some listeners, their campfire-style refrains at turns impossibly hooky (“Everyone knows that a dog dressed in clothes is still a dog” on the mod-styled single “No Social”) and questionably hokey (“So we sing the downer song / there’s something wrong, there’s something wrong”).

But none of these shortcomings are fatal, and the album still passes muster as a hodgepodge of unabashed pop. If anything, it’s the failure to rise above its component parts and create a unique and recognizable sound that keeps Replica Sun Machine from being the breakthrough album this promising trio deserves.

By Nick Cuce'

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