Dan Black - ((UN))

Tim Miller 25/08/2009

Rating: 3/5

Much has been made of the rise of the solo pop female this year, with a slew of debutants (Victoria Hesketh, Ellie Jackson, Florence Welch) pinching various accolades from each other so far in 2009 and bridging with ease the ever-blurring line between pop and indie. Their contrasting approaches to what is essentially mainstream pop has refreshed a tired genre and enchanted even the most discerning of music critics, and pop is starting to claw back some of its credibility as a pervasive arena for all kinds of good music. Great - but where are all the men?

One of the few brave enough to pump some (rather fey but strikingly handsome) testosterone into the ring, backed notably by hitherto unwavering admiration from the NME, is this review's protagonist Dan Black. Feted as a new new-romantic, the very English Dan Black moved to the suave and sophisticated Paris to record his debut long player, returning to London only to mix it. Quite some fuss has been made with Black's decision to immerse himself in the undoubtedly more artistic but musically less influential French capital, though how far - and successfully - it's gone to inform ((UN)) is hard to deduce.

Symphonies, the album's introduction, sounds like its beat was stolen from Rhianna's Umbrella, the double-tracked chorus vocals boosted by a similarly powerful thudding undertow. Arranged in cycles, the song's orchestral strings and choral backing sweep intermittently into the mix, and it's a bold but soothing start. Black's vocals are reminiscent of Thom Yorke's chilling quality, and across the album, particularly its choruses, they're often double tracked or harmonised for emphasis, and it gives the songs a saccharine front - a decent insight on Dan Black's part, as one register of his vocal might well not stand up on its own. It works effectively on Ecstasy particularly, where his vocal melody - 'I want that hot breath of life in me - combined with the oozing string sample slides through the chorus over another pulsating beat.

Black's most engaging rhythms take their cues from trip-hop and dub-step, when his string-heavy introspective electro is more poised. The album's first upbeat track, Alone, while carrying another catchy vocal, is rather lightweight, its club-ready beat failing to hit home. It takes the grinding single Yours, with its dirty chorus hook and stark bass riff, to pull things back up to speed after the innocuous electro-ballad Cocoon. But through the midway point of ((UN)), Black starts to lose direction a little. Pump My Pumps sports stronger dance alliances with a bolder four on the floor rhythm and basic synth melody, but is only frustratingly catchy in the same way Calvin Harris or Scissor Sisters can be.

The couplet of Wonder and Cigarette Pack provides welcome respite from the honorary Parisian's disco-dabbling, the former a ghostly Depeche Mode-like lament to a past relationship studded with '80s hallmarks, the latter a kitsch clip-clop of warm guitar and gentler drums. The underground sound of I Love Life scores for its heavily filtered awkwardness and also helps add clout to ((UN)) as a whole, but these aren't enough to fully convince as the 12-tracks peter out somewhat. Life Slash Dreams, boasting the hackneyed chorus line 'Life is life, dreams are dreams / and I'm floating somewhere in between', is galling, and the fluffy closer Let Go is all but an invitation to do just that with Black's debut album.

At times ((UN)) is full of French fancy; simpering strings, smooth vocal melodies and sparkling, whimsical pop vignettes. But all too easily come laboured and repetitive tracks, especially the disco-pop by numbers efforts, which tarnish the delicate quality to Dan Black's finer electro pop moments. Certainly, it's an album rich in luxurious sounds and ideas, though they're limited by the extent to which they're realised. Dan Black, then, isn't going to be the male challenger to the aforementioned femme fatales in the end-of-year stakes, but there are hints that he might have something to say in future head to heads.

Released 13th July 2009