Andy Stott: Luxury Problems
You and I have problems; Andy Stott has luxury problems, that is problems that aren't really problems when all is said and done. In his case, it alludes to the fact that Stott, who'd been doing paint work on refinished Mercedes vehicles for fourteen years (since the age of eighteen), quit the job without incurring serious financial hardship as a result—having the job, then, was his own luxury problem. Listeners certainly won't have any problem with Stott's fabulous new long-player, a dynamic eight-track set whose forty-nine minutes are tailor-made for vinyl presentation. Heightening its appeal considerably is his decision to incorporate vocals on five tracks, and in an inspired move, the vocalist Stott deploys isn't some celebrated diva but…his old piano teacher (also an opera singer), Alison Skidmore, with whom he hadn't been in touch since 1996. After recording herself singing a cappella, she sent the material on to Stott, who naturally edited, spliced, and treated it and then produced the tracks' other sounds to complement her oft-ethereal voice.
At the simplest level, the album naturally splits itself into vocal and non-vocal pieces, with the former arriving first. After opening “Numb” with repetitions of Skidmore's near-whispered “touch,” Stott proceeds to handle her vocals more elastically, splicing and layering them into insistent, hypnotic mantras until some vocal sounds begin to assume the role of rhythm elements—the chain-like swish of a hi-hat, for example—while others present themselves as more conventional vocal lines of dreamy character. Stott is present throughout, of course, not only as an ambient mass hovering in the background but in a heaving bass pulse that enters halfway through. As the tune eventually comes full circle in ending with the same “touch” with which it began, the listener is left momentarily stunned by Stott's creation.
An ominous and grainy bass presence stalks “Lost and Found” before a mournful vocal (presumably Skidmore again, though its Middle Eastern tone might lead one to question otherwise) surfaces to give the tune an even darker tone. Funk and techno percussive details filter in, too, that nudge the material closer to the kind of heavy bass music Stott's issued on past recordings. “Hatch the Plan” drops the listener into a noise-heavy industrial section of town for its intro before replacing it with a heavy, bass-thumping shimmy that leaves Skidmore's voice ample room for a dazzling series of acrobatic maneuvers; as hypnotic as anything else on the record, it also surprises for the aromatic gothic scent it gives off. The title track flirts with conventional dance tropes in merging Skidmore's angelic murmurs to a lively funk-house pulse, though even here surprises occur, this time in the form of abrupt interventions that play like accidental intrusions from some other channel on the radio dial. Similar to the opener, “Leaving” ends the album with her voice in the spotlight, Stott's bass synth the most audible accompaniment to her celestial musings.
On the instrumental side, “Expecting” gradually rises out of its smothering fog to reveal one of those zoned-out, slow-motion shuffles that Stott's so adept at crafting. One of the more interesting things about the recording is the distance he puts between its music and standard dance music conventions. Yes, elements of techno and house can be heard within the music, but Stott subverts the conventions repeatedly. “Sleepless” exudes the thrust of a club cut, for instance, and it also has a thudding kick drum to keep it rolling, but the style of the track is more African than anything else (in fact, the piece apparently grew out of an African drum edit that Stott elaborated upon). “Up the Box” is a head-scratcher of a kind, too: having unspooled a gradually building intro of surging rhythms for three minutes, Stott halts the music, dusts it off, and then re-casts it as a slowed-down Jungle workout that uses nothing other than the “Amen” riff as source material.Luxury Problems is an album of constant surprises, a consistently ear-catching set that's more of a headphones listen than club-designed collection, as should be obvious by now. Working with Skidmore proves to be a catalyst for some of Stott's most satisfying music to date; the move appears to have opened him up creatively to a whole new series of possibilities. Admittedly some degree of cohesiveness is lost when the tracks pull the album into so many different areas; on the upside, the listener is left excitedly anticipating while listening to it what new direction Stott might pursue next.