Lamb, the Mancunian duo of producer Andy Barlow and loose cannon vocalist Louise Rhodes, stood apart from the rest of the pretenders to Portishead's throne precisely because they eschewed melodies that sounded like art students ripping off Burt Bacharach. They concentrated on arrangements that were barbwired with fierce jungle breaks and Rhodes' near- hysterics vocals, which were essential for their climb into critics' hearts, and no where near the wallets of the cattle- fed morons that constitute the ghastly majority of the listening public.
So, I'm thrilled to report that things have gotten even better on Fear of Fours. Though it's not as instantly appealing as Lamb's debut, I assure you, it will grow on you, perhaps even offering a break from Belle and Sebastian's Tigermilk for a brief spell. Fear of Fours begins with a crescendoing bolero for the ecstasy generation. "Soft Mistake" crawls around until the familiar acidic spikes and tugs of a Roland 303 awaken a rush of sexually charged percussion. The layers of sound Barlow has subdued up to this point then fold over themselves; pliant and malleable, they resolve in each other. That overture sets the stage for the rest of the album.
And Lamb don't scrimp on thrills, neither. Lordy! They even get away with sampling the guitar finale from Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" on "Little Things." The song's behemoth bass line stalks Rhodes' curling vocal line as though it's her trailing black dog of paranoia. And Barlow's electronics exacerbate our impression that these "Little Things" are largely very schizoid. On "B-Line," Rhodes warns us that "if I could just compose myself/ I'd radiate just the right amount of cool and heat." Her vocal delivery on "Fly" is bifurcated so that the song sounds like a duet between sparring identities in a split personality. "Bonfire" smolders as only the best torch songs can. The exhilarating "All in Your hands" begins as a spare acoustic bass- and- 303- driven groove until Barlow tears the covers off and the song becomes as massive as the sky above. Only on "Alien" do Rhodes' lyrics get cloying. Her meditation on pregnancy ("This was a body/ Now it's a home for you/ My little alien/ I hope it's cozy in there") is hardly groundbreaking.
Naturally, Fear of Fours will be compared to Portishead's 1997 self- titled release, and the comparisons are valid. But unlike other pretenders, Lamb have adapted the trip-hop model instead of emulating or banalizing it. Where Portishead's Beth Gibbons' torch songs speak of yearning, lost lovers, cigarettes, solitude, and abandonment to alcohol, Lamb's Louise Rhodes chases a release from insanity. She yearns for the simplicity of reality. She desires things as they are, not things as her shredded mind has distorted them.
Of course, Rhodes' psychosis is most likely a facade, but she seems to understand that mentally aberrant women make for fascinating, if somewhat prurient drama. And Andy Barlow's music underpins each of his partner's twists and turns with an originality and a daring that should spur Portishead to break their mold, too.