South – Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars

South
Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars

Since the demise of James, the masters of effusive and aesthetic Brit-rock, fans of the genre, myself included, have had to look in a different direction for sweeping, timeless, and sublime rock. That direction is South. The UK trio of Joel Cadbury (vocals, bass, guitar), Jamie McDonald (lead guitar, vocals, drums), and Brett Shaw (drums, keyboards, guitar) has managed to combine the hazy ambience of their first release, From Here on In with the driving rhythms and brooding indie-rock of their sophomore album, With the Tides, and have fashioned an new album that Cadbury sums up perfectly when he describes Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars as the “balance between both previous albums, without being the same as either.”

The expectations were that South would press ahead following the logical progression of their first two releases and expand upon their complex yet lush rock arrangements. So the first impression of Adventures was that the band had stumbled. But first impressions are often wrong. Especially when the expectations are completely off the mark. So while the tunes on Adventures may be a bit more nebulous and a bit less intricate than those found on From Here on In and With the Tides, they are by no means any less engaging, and in some cases are even more resplendent.

In order for the listener to fully appreciate South’s music, this disc needs and deserves repeated spins, some with the volume cranked. But not because it is an acquired taste; in fact most of the tracks have elements that are immediately fetching. It’s because each track contains subtle textures that are creatively and artfully interwoven into the indie-rock backbone and are slowly revealed over time. This makes for a very satisfying listening experience since the album gets better each time you play it.

Accompanying the refined indie rock on standout tracks like “You are One,” “A Place in Displacement,” “Safety in Numbers,” “Up Close and Personal,” and opener “Shallow” are abundant quantities of New Order-ish bass lines, waves of U2-like guitars, layered with echo and feedback, and taut, polyrhythmic beats that rivals the best of what Travis has to offer and often approaches the lofty Brit-rock territory of James.

The vocals are equally entertaining and provide the melody on many of the more upbeat tracks. But what hooks you is the way the backing vocal harmonies furnish a poppy little three- or four-word catch phrase chorus that you can’t help but sing along with and can stay in your head for days. Even slower tunes like “Habit of a Lifetime” and “What Holds Us,” with their not-quite-Coldplay sensitive new-age guy lyrics, are realized with aplomb. Mostly due to the atmospheric rock orchestrations and the way Cadbury sings with a hushed passion that comes across as Tim Booth of James fronting the bliss-pop outfit Hood.

An added benefit of Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars is the way the warm melodies and introspective lyrics allow the album to work on several levels that can mimic the moods of those that care to listen, be it bright and sunny, gloomy or whatever. Although not quite as ethereal as some of James’ later work or as artful as U2’s best Eno-influenced experimental rock, South certainly has that potential. So when it’s time to look for someone to produce their next album, the pioneering Eno would do well.