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U.N.K.L.E.
Never, Never, Land
Island Records/'Mo Wax/Global Underground
www.unkle.com


One of my favorite pastimes is to get really spaced out drugs-preferably some prescription cough medicine, codeine-just suck back a bottle, strap on my head phones, and lose myself in the bowels of the subway for hours, listening to music and observing people, writing down what I see. People watching can be a twisted experience in the right state of mind; a perfect time-waster for a hack music writer such as myself.

Occasionally, I'll find someone interesting enough to break out of my trance and attempt interaction. Most times this is met with weird stares, coughs, harrumphs, even threats. As most of you know, life in the Northeast in the early 21st century isn't the most friendly place or time to be meeting strangers underground in Boston's public transportation system.

But I do it anyway.

It was on one such occasion that I noticed a young Latina girl sitting across from me, sketching something. I hadn't noticed her for several stops - I was engrossed in U.N.K.L.E.'s new release Never, Never, Land for what seemed like hours. But eventually, I couldn't stop glancing over at her. It wasn't that she was terribly beautiful; it was that, after some minutes of discreetly observing her, I realized she was sketching me. Me, nodding out on this dreary T car…Me, with my cracked headphones and decidedly shady demeanor.

Slowly I stood up and moved to the empty seat adjacent to her.

"What are you drawing?" I blurted out. She seemed flustered and tried to put away her notepad, but I gently put my hand on top of it, and glanced down at it.

"I was just sketching people on the train and you..."

"I like to people watch too," I said, cutting her off. "Can I have it?" I asked.

"Okay..." She tore off the page and handed it to me. Amazed at the abnormality of the situation, I felt like I couldn't let the conversation end. Without thinking about it, I removed my headphones and placed them over her ears, letting the sounds linger in her mind for a few minutes. Her eyes took on a glazed look, and after some moments she spoke. "It sounds like 1984," she said.

I was surprised at this, because images of Duran Duran, U2, The Smiths and The Cars popped into my head. "Not the actual year," she said. "The book - you know Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth, George Orwell? 1984."

The thought struck a chord with me and I began to realize that she was right. In fact, the feeling in the air these days decidedly "sounds like 1984." The recent U.S. release of the latest U.N.K.L.E. album (which came out overseas in 2003), sounds like an Orwellian backdrop (oh...I hate when writers use last names as adjectives...) to the young millennium - maybe the soundtrack to 28 Days Later, or an accompaniment to Albert Camus' The Plague. You know, bleak vision of the future, corrupt government controlling their citizens' every action, death, famine, destruction, all that jazz. Which is exactly how I felt about their previous release, Psyence Fiction, which was damn near close to genius.

The music itself is a haunting, sprawling dreamscape - a style that has become a signature for group founder James Lavelle, originator of the groundbreaking British label 'Mo Wax. That description sounds enticing enough, but the problem is that they just don't live up to the standards they set for themselves on Psyence Fiction. A quick glance at the album credits and it immediately becomes clear why. Resident super-genius Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, is conspicuously absent. Losing DJ Shadow is a major blow to any outfit, even one that includes the talented Lavelle. No one currently performing music today-not one person-can recreate the originality that DJ Shadow brings to his art. There's an important lesson to be learned here, and it should be an obvious one: Never, never, let the most talented person in your group get away from you. It's just common sense. And U.N.K.L.E. is severely damaged as a result of this blunder.

In Shadow's absence, Lavelle's hooked up with a new partner in the form of singer/songwriter Richard File. The newcomer holds down his spot capably, and one can imagine a good three or four tracks from the Lavelle/File era making it onto Psyence Fiction, especially "Inside", the final track on the original U.K. version. It brings to mind the 1998 collaboration with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, "Rabbit in Your Headlights", another Davis creation.

Despite its shortcomings, Never, Never, Land is a solid effort, one that certainly serves its purpose. Although there isn't the slew of all-star guest spots there were on the last go-'round, there are a few appearances worth noting. Chief amongst them - Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, who gets production/vocal credits on "Safe In Mind," as well as a pair of bonus remixes. 3D of Massive Attack (a collective that could be considered U.N.K.L.E.'s British cousins...though that might be a slight to 3D and crew...) makes an appearance on "Invasion", albeit not a particularly memorable one.

And that's essentially what Never, Never, Land boils down to - it's simply not memorable. I suppose the whole point of this is to express my frustration about a record that I want to be much better than it actually is. It's weird, how one can get exactly what they expect, and still be disappointed. Knowing about the absence of DJ Shadow before hearing the record created those lowered expectations...but shouldn't one hope anyway?

As for the girl, it's likely that none of this crossed her mind while listening to the music I imposed on her. The thing she took from it was a clear feeling - and that's what music should be about: extracting feeling from the art. So at least some good came of it. I continued to ride with her as she drew pictures of strangers. She missed her stop while devoting her attention to sketching a bag lady sitting in the row of seats across from us as we kicked around the idea of what 1984 felt like.

-Jason Dunbar

Track Listing:

1. Back And Forth
2. Eye For An Eye
3. In A State
4. Safe In Mind (Please take this gun from out my face)
5. I Need Something Stronger
6. What Are You To Me?
7. Panic Attack
8. Invasion
9. Reign
10. Glow
11. Inside
12. Eye for an Eye Backwards (Joshua Homme and Alain Johannes remix)
13. Safe in Mind (Please take this gun from out my face) (Chris Goss remix)


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