Bristol duo Malachai (né Malakai) have no particular respect for the form of the song, and, at first listen or two, the interest of Ugly Side of Love lies in trying to figure out whether that’s a deficiency or a statement. If the former, they get pretty lucky about a third of the time; if the latter, they could stand to do things with a little more conviction. The album assembles a lot of disparate traditions under a leaky rocktronica umbrella—stoned trip-hop, bleary hard-psych, yowling garage-soul — and for the most part leaves them to sort out their differences. Malachai’s master stroke is an absence of master stroke, either a principled refusal or a principled failure to make it all cohere.
When it glosses as voluntary, it’s pretty cool. Take “Snowflake,” the most conventionally well put together track and the first where tape shear and audio wobble aren’t a distinct structural element. It’s got a great swagger of chainsaw guitar, tennis-ball drums, acid-washed piano, plus vocals that swing between slacker purr and whiskey hiss. “How Long” is sonically flimsy and structurally clumsy (see the needle-drop shift from guitar solo to verse), but both in a way that’s a little too manicured to be accidental. Ditto the vocals in feel-good ditty “Another Sun,” which are only just as out-of-tune as it takes to make it noticeable.
But a lot of the time it feels genuinely arbitrary: in foothold-free opener “Warriors” and follow-up “Shitkicker,” Malachai aren’t riding the weird so much as doing formally reckless stuff and then repeating it, more or less verbatim. There’s obviously some strategy operating—no other way to explain the Ghostface vibe of “Fading World,” or the slithery free-association of “Simple Song,” which either mimics Clouddead’s habit of pretending to ignore rhythm or actually just ignores rhythm—but the intent of it is no less inscrutable for it. “Moonsurfin” sounds like a really successful attempt to write a crappy song.
One wants to call this frustrating, but frustration implies some kind of missed potential — and it’s hard to believe that Malachai haven’t accomplished exactly what they wanted to: mixing Soulwax’s indiscriminate approach to genre with These New Puritans’ militantly ambivalent approach to music itself, playing it so cool that they only sometimes remember to make sense. It’s fleetingly fun, but mostly Ugly Side of Love makes a better enigma than an album.