Airhead: For Years
R&S Records

Too much shouldn't be made of the fact that Rob McAndrews (aka Airhead) has recently been playing to audiences around the world as a guitarist for his childhood friend James Blake; at the same time it's hard not to see some connection between Blake's music and the songs featured on McAndrews' Airhead debut outing For Years, specifically the aromatic sense of languor that permeates some of its material. But the similarities largely end there, as McAndrews stakes out his own highly personalized territory on the forty-minute album.

A key moment in his own development helps clarify the sensibility McAndrews brings to For Years. It was at Sub Dub Exodus in Leeds's West Indian Centre, where he was exposed to dubstep artists like Digital Mystikz and Loefah, that he experienced the revelation that music wasn't simply notes on a page but instead “manipulation of sound to evoke emotion.” In keeping with that realization, the album's ten songs often play less like songs than sound collages, albeit ones that are carefully structured as opposed to randomly thrown together.

The melancholic tone is already present in the slow-burn of “Wait,” which opens the album arrestingly with cut-ups of soulful vocal fragments and lyrical guitar shadings (would those be snippets of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' “Maps” cropping up every now and then?). Airhead is anything but a one-note riff on Blake's sound, however: a vague hint of hip-hop emerges in the wonky second cut, “Milkola Bottle,” where elements of dub and found sound also strongly figure. Field recordings thus play a significant role, with McAndrews often expanding a given track's scope dramatically by their inclusion. In addition, “Fault Line” finds Airhead hitting the dancefloor for a house-inflected jam.

His imaginativeness as a producer and sound designer is compellingly captured in a bold track such as “Pyramid Lake,” which catches one's ears for its fresh, collage-styled fusion of beats, samples, and snippets. One of For Years' most memorable tracks, “Callow” distills the myriad strengths of the Airhead project into a single piece when McAndrews pairs gently cooing female vocals with a downtempo groove. Interestingly, Blake (apparently) shows up on the concluding track but no noticeable alteration in the album's sound occurs as a result. Instead, “Knives” hews to the Airhead masterplan by keeping the focus on a slow-motion crawl of claps and percussion samples. That's as it should be, as McAndrews seems perfectly capable of asserting his own identity on this engaging debut collection.

June 2013