Music Reviews

SOHN Tremors

(4AD) Rating - 6/10

The importance of location might be something of an overlooked subject in music discussion. Perhaps because the image of the recording studio we lay-people have is of something purely functional and technical, a blacked-out bunker where artists are sequestered away from the distractions of the outside world. And yet it's interesting to note (or at least, this particular musical trainspotter finds it interesting) that, despite the dire financial situation the music industry is apparently in, acts are still sent half way round the world to lock themselves up in bunkers in slightly sunnier and more exotic climes.

Location is unquestionably a key factor in the career progression of singer/songwriter/producer Christopher Taylor. After several years creating likeably scrappy material situated somewhere around the point where emo and electronica met under the name Trouble Over Tokyo to relative public indifference (perhaps because of that name, or that mix of genres), he retreated from London to Vienna and set about reinventing himself, re-emerging a couple of years ago as SOHN, with a sound that seemed slightly Teutonic (in the cool, Nico-esque sense that music criticism uses the word to denote); austere and cold, but beautiful with it.

In fact, the relocation became something of a common feature in the giddy hype-pieces that have continually popped up over the past couple of years, with Taylor’s descriptions of the space that the city allows him to work making him come across like a slightly unconventional estate agent. However, there’s a very good chance that such focus has been born of necessity, given the artist’s general air of guardedness, which hardly makes for great interview fodder. Not content with hiding himself behind nom de laptops and fairly technical chatter, the SOHN persona has also seen Taylor cultivate a visual image that consists of a cavernous black hoodie-cum-jedi robe, and a very studied, static stage presence in the few gigs that he’s performed so far under the name.

Not that shyness is an issue, particularly when the material’s as good as SOHN’s early singles, all low-key R&B built around impressive layers of vocal samples and technical tricks that were utilised in an genuinely intelligent way (and the same goes for his work with the likes of fellow uppercase fan, BANKS). Tremors, however, is the first real sense of being granted a proper look at SOHN and what he’s about, and given that we’ve had to wait a couple of years for it, it doesn’t feel like a very satisfying pay-off. The achingly cool production and clear and expressive falsetto are still very much present and correct, but unfortunately, as the existence of Coldplay, and the ever growing horde of Mariah Carey-inspired mini-divas attest, musical talent and a great sense for melody don’t necessarily equate in interesting content.

In truth, despite the single-minded drive and dedication that SOHN has no doubt put into Tremors, there's something a bit hollow about the end result, like the appearance of personal lived-in experience that informed it is really just a thin veneer, creating something that impresses from a distance but feels worrying flimsy when subjected to closer inspection. At first glance SOHN might seem to be creating nighttime, bedroom productions, yet these works seem to be entirely devoid of intimacy; bodies may “float” and “collide” in these lyrics, but they never really seem to come together, or even have much weight to them at all, and the music has just a bit too much of a (Jean-Michel) jarr(e)ing sense of grandiosity about it to seduce.

To continue on the bedroom-based discussion a bit further, SOHN might well have shot his load a bit too soon with those singles, although the craftsmanship that went into each remains just as impressive, such as the skipping, repetitive patterns made out of his wordless vocals that seem to stretch on like an infinite hall of mirrors in Bloodflows, or the panicky arpeggios of Lessons. However, these same techniques are used throughout Tremors, and en masse they lose a certain proportion of their appeal, creating an atmosphere that could be described as airless and cloying (and even slightly self-obsessed, given just how much Taylor’s voice in its various forms dominates each track). Occasionally something will be introduced that jolts the listener out of complacency – the metronomic beat and warm minor key synth-pads of Lights, which bring back fond memories of mid 90’s dance music, or Veto's jagged electric buzzes, and gorgeously multi-tracked choruses - but there aren't enough of them to replicate those wonderful first hits.

Again, it comes back to that sense of guardedness. While it’s a comforting idea to think that an introverted soul could make a real impact in the overcrowded field of popular music, the lack of character that comes through suggests a blandness caused by a fear of over-sharing and of losing control; to quote the chorus from most recent single Artifice: “Somebody better let me know my name / Before I give myself away / Somebody better show me how I feel / 'Cause I know I’m not at the wheel”. Or perhaps it’s just because he hasn’t had that much in the way of regular life experience; with all the information that we’ve been provided with so far it seems that the one big setback in the man’s life is the failure of his previous performing persona.

Given the enviable depth of his talent, and the quality of those early singles and co-productions, there’s plenty to indicate that Taylor will grow into his SOHN persona and create a more complete work,\ once he’s loosened up and lived a little. As a first attempt, Tremors is stirring, maybe, but not earth moving, unfortunately.