Reviewed by Malcolm Seymour III (Picthfork media)
The latest effort from London's one-man Capitol K outfit is an elegant stylistic cocktail that mixes indie pop and IDM (let's say the "I" stands for "independent") without compromising either. The hybridization of rock and electronic genres has become a fairly tired musical formula over the last several years, but 26-year-old Kristian Craig Robinson executes with such precision and innovation that Island Row leaves even the seasoned listener slackjawed and struggling for comparisons.
K's music draws from a broad pool of influences, indicative of his geographically scattered childhood. Maltese by birth, he divided his early years between Dubai and Borneo, coming eventually to Britain for secondary school. There, Robinson encountered American indie bands like Fugazi and Sonic Youth, who inspired him to start his first band. His background gets a bit hazy beyond that point, but his music suggests that, somewhere along the line, he ate loads of psychotropic chemicals, picked up a few Rephlex records and bought himself a Dictaphone. All these jumbled elements of his past echo forcefully in his work, and more evenly on Island Row than any of his previous outings.
Capitol K's recording legacy dates back to 1998, when he released a self-titled 12" on Elf Cut Records. Two of the four tracks from that record made the cut for his full-length (the absolutely astounding Sounds of the Empire) on Mike Paradinas' Planet µ imprint the following year. Of that album, Mike writes (and I concur), it "is still one of the best debut albums I have heard." You might even care to scratch the word debut.
Material from these early releases hints only cautiously at Robinson's rock-n-roll leanings. The follow-up Roadeater EP, issued in early 2000, signaled a shift toward a more balanced mixture of vocals, samples and strumming. And Island Row carries the torch-- four of the 11 songs here have proper lyrics, and nearly all feature a bit of guitar-work.
Still, the prevailing theme here is production; the inane, carnival-esque noodlings reminisce of Mouse on Mars, while the occasionally caustic drum breaks recall tunes from Autechre's Gescom side-project. But Capitol K brings so much of his own flavor to the table that likening him to either of those musicians would be misleading.
Exoticism becomes a key theme in Robinson's work-- not the token ethno-techno exoticism of Talvin Singh or Badmarsh & Shri, who intersperse dull drum loops with unimaginative sitars and tablas, and earn credit for "fusing" different genres. It would be more appropriate to say today's world beat musicians layer different genres, always conscious of which sounds belong to the East and which belong to the West, and scarcely exploring any middle ground.
Capitol K breaks this mold, and stakes out a bit of sonic territory somewhere in between. Reversed drum loops bounce between Eastern and Western time signatures, while Robinson's candid falsetto brings urgency to even the most saccharine lyrics. Out of context, many of the lyrics seem puerile, which is probably what makes them so damn effective. It wrenches even my calloused heart to hear K innocently cry the chorus of the opening track, "Heat." "I'd like to know/ If you like the cold/ 'Cause when we meet/ I'll bring the heat." On paper, it reads like a nursery rhyme, but the latent angst beneath Robinson's voice tells a more frustrated story-- one of a lost passion.
"Pillow," which also made an appearance on Roadeater, seems the most readily accessible song of the lot. Even while treading through bubblegum turf, it manages to retain its edge and subtlety, thanks to Robinson's production trickery. But gems lurk in the album's darker corners as well. "Monster," as the name might suggest, can be at times difficult and abrasive, matching heavy guitar distortion with esoteric Eastern melodies. Other honorable mentions include "Breakers," "Lion Anon" and "Forgotten Duffle Coat," on which K collaborates with friend Leafcutter John.
The album loses points for two reasons, the most legitimate being that a handful of the tracks feel disjointed. Capitol K's transitions tend to be remarkably smooth, but there are several on this album (particularly on the songs "God Ohm" and "Is It U?") that it seems he might simply have handled better. The second complaint I'm obligated to lodge against Island Row is a reprimand for the Prince cover, "Dance On." Robinson admits he intended it as a joke, but thanks to American copyright laws, that joke prohibited Americans from importing this brilliant record for nearly four months. I could have done without the inconvenience, especially for this lackluster song.
I hope I've done this album justice, but it's tough to tell when so many terrible albums receive so much critical lip service. If my generic praise leaves you with the impression that Island Row is generic music, do yourself a favor and dig up some MP3s. These songs deserve to be heard.
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