Renfro: Mathematics

Formed in late 2005, UK band renfro embodies a curious amalgam of divergent tendencies: on the one hand, singer Tim Branney and sound designer Atom James Draper love the kind of silken vocal harmonies one associates with dream-pop; on the other, the duo also loves the avant-garde techniques deployed by experimental pioneers like Tod Dockstader and John Cage and current practitioners Matmos and Herbert. Mathematics documents renfro's generally convincing attempt to unite the two interests into a cohesive style. The vocal dimension is comprehensively addressed (“Half-Life of Happiness,” for instance, includes eighteen tracks of vocals) while the adventurous sonic mix of field recordings and electroacoustic treatments includes a cat's jangling bell, a punched bag of oats, popping bubble warp, sizzling noodles, microphone scrapes, deep space NASA transmissions, and so forth. Not that the listener will take too much notice of the songs' idiosyncratic sound-sourcing after being transfixed by their surplus of swooning melodies and lighter-than-air vocal masses. Furthermore, though Branney and Draper may generate their sounds in unusual ways, they wisely channel their energy into transmuting those elements into settings that largely sound natural, no matter how unnatural the origins. “Broken Little Pieces,” for instance, may found itself on a textural array of soft clicks and whistles but the detail recedes in importance once the song's soulful and sinuous vocal melodies take wing. One sometimes is reminded of Junior Boys, the difference being that renfro's tracks aren't dance-based but rather rooted in classic song structures. In fact, songs like “Illuminations” and “Terrain” (with its stirring refrain “I'm moving fast over this terrain”) are so lovely, they call to mind nothing less than Morr Music's Slowdive tribute Blue Skied An' Clear (Future 3's “Alison” could even pass for a renfro template of sorts). If Mathematics has a weakness, it's the familiar one of plentitude: its fifty-five-minute duration is long for a song-based collection so a bit of judicious pruning might have been considered (the album would survive the omission of “Add/Subtract” and “Map of Missing Things”). There's no disputing the thoroughly beguiling quality of the material, however.

July 2008