UNKLE Psyence Fiction (Mo Wax)

Another album that seems to have caked its’ way into a fair number of Sunday colour supplements, Unkle is the name given to the collaborative efforts of Mo Wax boss James Lavelle, his right-hand-man DJ Shadow (a.k.a. Josh Davis) and a raft of famous and not-so-famous friends. "Psyence Fiction" sounds like it should be the hip-hop (and hip) equivalent of the wonderful This Mortal Coil albums that Ivo Watts-Russell used to assemble using talent from his own 4AD label, synergistic collaborations assembled with a jeweller’s eye for detail. But hang on a minute, isn’t that the sort of thing Massive Attack have been doing, to deserved critical acclaim, for years?

Well, sort of. Certainly, the first time I heard "Psyence Fiction" my impression was of a label boss desperately trying to create some kind of statement, possessed by the misguided belief that mashing up a few hip vocalists (Beastie Boy Mike D, Richard Ashcroft and Thom Yorke among them) with some DJ Shadow backing tracks he found lying around the office would do the trick. Added to the puffed up packaging of the limited edition version (2,000 only worldwide, apparently) Diverse sent me, with a hardback sleeve and two fold-out booklets of photos, it made the Unkle project look like one man’s folly, and the inclusion of the prophetic Francis Ford Coppola quote from "Heart Of Darkness" (the documentary about the filming of "Apocalypse Now" that runs something like "There were too many of us, we had too much money, too much equipment and gradually we went insane" in "Unkle Main Title Theme" look like an irony too far.

But give it time and "Psyence Fiction" begins to gel: it’s still far too rough and obviously cut-and-pasted to compete on the same turf as the Massive, but perhaps that’s no bad thing: with its sci-fi/graffiti stylings it seems to aspire to be something far more, er, ‘street’. And there is much good music here, none of which kicks harder than the Kool G Rap track that opens the album, "Guns Blazing". (Unkle folklore suggests that it was DJ Shadow who insisted Kool G Rap be on the album, wanting someone ‘old skool’ on there; Lavelle bizarrely believed that the inclusion of Mike D would be sufficient to represent the rapping massive.) Then there’s Richard Ashcroft’s "Lonely Soul", originally recorded between one of The Verve’s seemingly regular dissolutions. It’s kind of like "History" gone hip-hop, with Ashcroft groaning about wanting to die in a place that doesn’t know his name: if it looked possible then, it certainly won’t be now. Full marks too for the dizzying string coda, provided by past Massive Attack arranger Wil Malone, and the use of steam train samples as an unlikely percussion track.

The other crowd puller - and probably a single by the time you read this - is Thom Yorke’s "Rabbit In Your Headlights". The lyrics may be the standard Radiohead whinge about the pressures of fame - "I’m a rabbit in your headlights/Caught in the spotlight" etc. etc. - but DJ Shadow’s musical accompaniment is truly astonishing: imagine Erik Satie playing atop a jazz drum loop that sounds like it’s fallen off one of Talk Talk’s deepest journeys into polyrythms. Mention of that late, lamented band reminds me that Mark Hollis was supposed to pop up on "Psyence Fiction" to sing "Chaos", but eventually refused, leaving the song’s author Atlantique to warble it instead. Which she does very well, it has to be said, but when you think of what could’ve been...

In fact the only really disappointing track is "The Knock", a three-way tussle between Mike D, DJ Shadow and Metallica’s Jason Newstead, which, after the excellence of the last Beasties album, somehow fails to catch fire, despite all its claims to be "getting down in the Unkle style". Discard this, though, and you’re still left with a fine album that wants to be everywhere and everything to everybody at once, and even though it isn’t "Psyence Fiction" remains, on its own terms, a glorious failure, and an addictive brew that, although ahead of its time, we may not see the like of again.


In which Ian Brown returns to gainful employment by warbling a few choice hobgoblin phrases over one of the less arresting moments of UNKLE's sporadically stunning "Psyence Fiction" and, as if by magic, creates the best thing he's put his name to since the last Stone Roses long player. "Be There" suggests that there may be life left in the old monkey yet; maybe there are huge vistas of baggy/hip-hop interaction just waiting to be explored, which may yet erase the memory of Brown's disappointing debut solo album.

Elsewhere on the 12" Underdog have a go at remixing the lead track (more guitars, Ian Brown singing down a telephone) and Noel Gallagher takes the worst track off "Psyence Fiction" ("The Knock"), makes it longer, adds more guitars and baptises it "The Knock On Effect". No, really, you shouldn't have.

DJ Shadow