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Mercury Records

Something smells like a trend here. The basic formula seems to consist of a sexy female singer casting out seductive vocals while a geeky DJ-producer sits behind the boards conjuring a whirl of electronic drum 'n' bass, comfortable in his position of relative anonymity. Everything But the Girl, Morcheeba, Goldie, and Portishead all come to mind, as well as this debut album from the Manchester duo Lamb.

Nevertheless, Lamb has more to offer than your average lemming. The first hint of that comes from the enticing drum 'n' bass single "Cotton Wool," in which vocalist Louise Rhodes beckons us with a convincing Tori Amos impersonation while Andy Barlow's busy spinning some def Spring Heel Jack-inspired rhythms.

But alas, Lamb shuns the "drum 'n' bass" tag, preferring to be called "future jazz." True, many of the tracks are jazz-based, and Rhodes' vocal style is, indeed, that of a talented jazz singer, but that difference is hardly grounds enough to call Lamb unique. Spinnin' jazz is just where it's at right now, even if Suzanne Vega explored that territory long ago.

In fact, Rhodes' versatility as a singer is more of an ability to emulate the styles of Portishead (on "Lusty" and "Trans Fatty Acid"), Shelleyan Orphan ("Merge"), and Vega ("Feela"). Despite their derivative tendencies, however, Lamb's first effort is an excellent technical accomplishment--as it should be, given Barlow's credentials. A child of both the Manchester rave scene and Philadelphia hip-hop, Barlow is a well-educated sound engineer who initially said he had no use for a vocalist. Fortunately, Rhodes convinced him otherwise a few years back, and the result is possibly the first release of its kind since Massive Attack or EBTG's Walking Wounded that's actually better to listen to at home than on the dance floor.

Rhodes' lyrics are at once sensual and intelligent, based on years of honing her talents as a folkie songwriter (her mum's a folk singer as well), and she succeeds in elevating her style to a modern plateau. Some of her past spills over into tracks like "Zero," which is pleasantly devoid of electronica, relying simply on stand-up bass and cello arrangements that call to mind a bit of what Shelleyan Orphan was attempting in the '80s. If anything, that's what sets Lamb apart from the flock.

Still, it's wishful thinking to believe that drum 'n' bass isn't Lamb's true selling point, though it might explain why an excellent remix of "Cotton Wool" lies hidden after three minutes of silence at the end of "Feela"--presumably placed there to force you into listening to the rest of the album, and not just the single.

Very tricky, guys. Baaaah.

--Richard Baimbridge


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