Live everything else, music is dictated by fashion and trends. What’s fashionable or “trendy” today, could be out of fashion next week or next month. Sometimes, genres of music stay in fashion for a while, others disappear quickly. A few years ago, one of the most fashionable and popular genres of music was chill-out or downtempo music. I remember buying the very first albums that appeared on record shop shelves, and watched in amazement as this became one of the most popular recent musical genres. In the beginning, small record labels and artists led the way, and some brilliant compilations and artist albums were released. Quickly, it became fashionable for record companies to release chill-out albums, so labels big and small jumped on the bandwagon. Back-catalogues were raided and a whole manner of compilations found their way into record shops. This caused a problem. Quality began to suffer, and eventually, a saturation point was reached. People became fed up with increasingly poor compilations. Even labels and compilations which previously, had led the way, started to exploit this trend, and quality nosedived. Soon, the trend for chill-out music was over. By now, the trendsetters in the music industry were looking for the trend or next big thing, most probably retro in nature. However, once the dust had settled, and people looked at the best of the releases, it became apparent that many good chill-out albums had been released. This included compilations and artist albums. One of the best artist albums was Fragile State’s Voices From The Dustbowl. In this article, I’ll tell you about that album, and what makes it such a good album.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Fragile State. Previously, I’ve wrote about their debut album The Facts and the Dreams, which was a beautiful album. Voices From The Dustbowl is the follow-up to The Facts and the Dreams, released by Fragile State in March 2004. Fragile State is the moniker for Ben Mynott and Neil Cowley, who wrote, arranged mixed and produced every track on the album. Unlike other similar albums, Voices From The Dustbowl features real instruments, played beautifully by a small group of musicians. That to me, is one of the things that makes this such a good album, that and some great arrangements and production. Now I’ll tell you about Voices From The Dustbowl, and why anyone who loves chill-out or downtempo music should add it to their collection.

Voices From The Dustbowl opens with Four-Four-Four, a track that has been influenced by Afro-beat. It’s a combination of Rhodes keyboard and subtle bass, with vocals influenced by Afro-beat that opens the track. It’s a a track that flows along, sound effects and spoken word vocals entering the track. Atop the track sits the vocals, whilst behind it, a fuller arrangement has emerged. A lot is going on in the arrangement,  and maybe it’s not a typical downtempo track. The tempo seems quicker than it really is, but the mixture of traditional instruments, vocals and sound effects produce an intriguing, melodic track full of subtleties and nuances.

After Four-Four-Four a slower track, King For A Day sees the tempo increase slightly and a much rockier sounding track emerge. Keyboards meander, accompanied by a bass, giving no indication that things are about to change. Then, quickly, the arrangement starts to grow, becoming quite dramatic. Drums play, a guitar solos. Meanwhile, the arrangement sweeps along behind it. Like the previous track, it has a fuller arrangement. Here, it’s a combination of strings and occasionally, slow melodic keyboards. Later a lovely acoustic guitar plays, only to be replaced by space age sounding keyboards and electric guitars, as the track takes another dramatic turn. Thereafter, it flows towards the end, sweeping grandly, with guitars and drums sometimes making their presence felt. By the end of the track, you can’t fail but be impressed by this dramatic, sweeping, soundscape, where downtempo meets rock. 

When New Bassa begins, it certainly grabs your attention. It’s a slightly discordant sound that opens the track. That’s the only discordant thing you’ll hear for the rest of the track. What follows is a beautiful lush track, keyboards and strings combining perfectly. A keyboard plays, at the start, it’s joined by strings which sweep in. They immediately create a lovely lush sound, that washes beautifully over you. Then, like the previous track, it takes a dramatic turn. The sound grows, more keyboards play, drums are pounded slowly, a contrast to the beauty surrounding it. Synths produce otherworldly sounds, Meanwhile the strings continue to play beautifully. Later rhythms emerge courtesy of keyboards, vocals make an appearance, drums reappear and sounds made by synths defy description. As the track ends, I’ve come to the realization that New Bassa is great track. However, there so much is going on, it becomes hard to take it all in. In the end, you end up sitting back, letting what is a beautiful lush track wash over you.  

Cleo is one of the slowest tracks on the album, only seventy beats per minute. This makes it perfect for chilling out to. At the start you think it’s going to be a slow, spacious track because of the meandering start. However, when guitars, acoustic and electric bass and keyboards combine, space is it a premium. Instead a fuller sounding track, takes its place. Straight away, it’s melodic, hooks aplenty. A female vocalist sings, her voice is strong, sitting at the front of the mix. Percussion, bass drums and keyboards combine for much of the track. Guitars too, played brilliantly by Matt Coldrick. An eastern influence is present here. This is because of vocals and instruments that make a fleeting appearance. That isn’t the only influence present. Jazz, funk and downtempo all play their part here. Later in the track, the arrangement becomes much more subtle, and the arrangement is glorious. It has an understated beauty, made all the better by a much more stripped back sound. However, this doesn’t last, and the track returns to a much fuller sound. By the end of the track, I’ve become smitten by Cleo, it’s has a fantastic arrangement, features some talented musicians and sounds brilliant.

As 600 Bliss opens, straight away, it sweeps beautifully over you. Immediately you’re hooked, caught up in its lush, beautiful introduction. The tempo is slow as strings enter, sweeping lushly. Drums and keyboards combine, the keyboard playing a lovely melody. Although the drums are quite loud, and far forward in the mix, they’re slow and spacious. By now, it’s apparent this is the best track so far. What I like about it is the tempo, and combination of slow sweeping strings and melodic keyboard, against loud spacious drums. Fragile State seem to really have produced a masterpiece here, very different from the preceding tracks. This is because there isn’t so much going on during the track. Here it’s a case of less is more. Brilliant, downtempo music like it should be, slow, spacious and really chilled. 

When Stolen Generation begins, it has a broody, moody sound. It makes you wonder what’s coming next. What comes next is a lovely short track. Two and a half minutes of a backdrop of lush strings with a meandering, almost melancholy keyboard accompanying it. You know the track is nearly over when there’s a reprisal of the broody, moody sound that opened the track. Although just a short track, it’s a lovely one, with a pensiveness throughout. It’s just a pity that it wasn’t a longer track.

It’s a familiar sound that opens At Last, but a sound you’ll never tire of hearing, strings and keyboards. The string sweep in like a gentle tide, while the keyboards play slowly. At Last meanders beautifully along, just now, its sound much subtle than other tracks. Sound effects can be heard, handclaps and bells ring, as the track takes an eastern twist. Dramatic, sometimes moody, it’s a powerful combination. Later, drums pound, they almost overpower the rest of the arrangement. Thankfully, they quickly disappear. When they reappear, their power suits the rest of the arrangement, but still, seem way too loud. Their presence takes the edge of an otherwise good track. If they’d either been played more subtly, or moved further back in the mix, it would’ve been much better. They seem out of character with the eastern them that is developing throughout the track. Apart from the drums, it’s a good track.

Paper Tiger starts with space age sounds emerging from your speakers. This gives the track a mysterious feel and sound, like a soundtrack for a sci-fi movie. After that, the mysterious, slightly moody sound continues with strings slowly played. A violin gives the track a classical sound. All the while, a multitude of unearthly sounds accompany the string. Even when the keyboards play, they add to the air of mystery. Although mysterious and moody sounding, the track has a captivating quality, you’re enthralled by, unable to work out what will happen next. It’s like the plot in a good book, twists and turns aplenty. You end up inventing scenarios to fit the music, always coming back to something space related. Sweeping, dramatic, intriguing are some of the words I’d use to describe this brilliant track that’s easily, one of the album’s highlights.

Drum and bass. That’s what I thought when I heard the introduction to the Overcurrent. The tempo is quick, the drums fast, accompanied by synths and cymbals. Otherworldly noise join and sweep in. Then a melody plays behind it on a keyboard, and a lovely vocal joins. It appears, disappears and reappears constantly, echoing high above the arrangement. Meanwhile, the pace of the drums is nearly frantic, and synths sweep all around, swirling in the arrangement. Behind them, the keyboards plays the same melody, the vocal reappears. Later a keyboard joins, playing the lead. It and the drums vie for your attention. Sometimes, the swooshing synths play a bigger part, and in doing so, create an eery atmosphere. As the track ends the synth sounds like a spaceship taking off, the vocal reverberates and what sounds like rain can be heard. Like the previous track, I found Overcurrent intriguing and dramatic. The addition of the synths, combined with drum and bass style beat and ethereal vocal was a masterstroke. Together they produced am excellent track, one very track from others, where drumbeats dominated the sound, and everything else vied for your attention. 

A crystalline sound opens Train Time. It sounds like a choir of angels, which sweeps  into being, before a female vocalist sings. Behind her, the sound starts of slowly and subtly, gradually meandering melodically along. Whistles interrupt the vocal, drums play and keyboards join the mix. By now, it’s a much busier arrangement. Much is going on as the arrangement builds. Keyboards, drums, synths producing surreal space age sounds. They’re followed by the choir, as the arrangement becomes much more understated. When the vocal reappears, she continues to sing in her own made-up language, which is a form of scatting. Towards the end, the arrangement builds back up. Keyboards, drums and strings producing a powerful sound, before the reappearance of the choir as the song ends. Like other tracks on this album, Fragile State don’t do things by half. Their arrangements are big, with a much fuller sound than similar artists. So much goes on during this majestic track. There are peaks and troughs in the arrangement, it’s dramatic yet sweeping, but sometimes has a beautiful ethereal and crystalline sound. 

Voices From The Dustbowl closes with Paper Tiger which begins with beeps and sweeping synths, strings and keyboards plays as floaty space age track gradually emerges. Again, the sound is dramatic, light and shade combining masterfully. The arrangement wanders slowly along, sounds emerging gradually. They’re a mixture gentle tinkling sounds and grander bolder ones. Later, louder much bolder drums burst into life, announcing their arrival, the equivalent of musical punctuation. Mainly, there’s an understated quality to the track. That is until guitars soars, a solo suddenly emerging combining with the earlier, loud drums. Anyone who loves a powerful guitar solo will be in their element, as the guitar solo drives the track along, everything else playing second best. As the track draws to a close, the much more understated arrangement returns, and the track meanders to a close, complete with squelching and sweeping synths. Paper Tiger is a great track, one that’s almost a track of two parts. The first part is a lovely meandering, understated track, the second a powerful guitar led part, which is totally at odds with what came before. Together, they combine to produce a stunning track, to end the album.

Having spent some time listening to Voices From The Dustbowl, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to listen to it, is as one piece of music. It’s an album of peaks and troughs, where the tempo rises and falls. Each track has something different to offer, but certain things remain a constant. Throughout the album, lush strings, keyboards and dramatic, sweeping arrangements are present on each album. Sometimes, guitars and vocals are used to augment the sound, and occasionally, synths produce a multitude of otherworldly and atmospheric sounds and effects. As a downtempo album, it’s quite different from other albums. For example, it hasn’t much in common with Nightmares On Wax, Telefuzz, Fug or Nitin Sawhey, all of whom I’ve previously written about. Here, the arrangements are much fuller than on these albums. Also, here isn’t the spacey sound on this album that are present on albums like Smoker’s Delight and Car Boot Soul by Nightmares On Wax, or Sleep by Telefuzz. Having said all that, Voices From The Dustbowl is a really good album, one that regardless of how many times you listen to it, you’ll hear something new each time you hear it. It’s melodic, lush and dramatic, and during eleven songs, Fragile State will prove the perfect soundtrack for you to relax and unwind. Standout Tracks: King For A Day, 600 Bliss, Stolen Generation  and Paper Tiger.


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