Dub's spaciousness proves vital in not letting the New York trio's second album suffocate under the weight of its own influences.
Logan Takahashi of Teengirl Fantasy recently shared his admiration for New York trio La Big Vic for a feature on Dummy, citing the honesty they portray as a fusion act, stating: “A lot of times musical eclecticism can end up feeling more like a conceptual one-liner, but with La Big Vic it is used as a (natural) means to an end.” Interestingly, on paper they well be at risk for over-conceptualising: a J-Pop and R&B producer (Toshio Masuda) starts a musical project with The Fader’s Senior Editor – who’s also had classical training in voice and violin (Emilie Friedlander) – and a composer with a talent for restoring vintage synthesisers (Peter Pearson). It sounds like a meeting rife with opportunities for technically- and intellectually-driven chin-stroking if ever one presented itself. Fortunately, for the majority of La Big Vic’s second album ‘Cold War’, these elements are subsumed into their sound for all the right and necessary reasons, moulding the group’s disparate musical influences into something clearly defined.
Their first LP, 2011’s ‘Actually’, seemed more about La Big Vic setting out the terms through which their wide-reaching musicianship could be defined – with its psychedelic inflections and more overt Eastern influences crafted through its improvisatory atmosphere. A year later came ‘Dub The World!: Actually Revisited’, offering dub reinterpretations of the first album. While it could be easy to dismiss the significance of such a record, it’s actually one that’s essential in moving towards the natural feel that Takahashi speaks of. The dub takes on ‘Actually’ breathed life into works that sometimes risked being overwhelmed in substance; in the case of Everybody Needs Jah (Fao Dub), it allowed Friedlander’s voice the space to soar into, where it had previously been buried beneath effects and dense instrumentation.
‘Cold War’ benefits immensely by carrying this appreciation for spacious, dubby ambience into a work that drives more towards multifaceted pop clarity. This presents itself instantly: with the opening title track commencing with Freidlander’s reverb-buried, echoing vocal proclaiming, “Now that we’re underground”. The maelstrom of influences then rush in – with subtle fanfare blasts, lively strings and bass-heavy percussion passing into a clear, hard-hit drum sound. It’s a big, room-filling pop opener – but one whose rich palette of sounds greatly benefits from taking breathing space in its dub-infused opening and closing passages. Whether conscious or not, it’s a mode that relies on periods of openness that continue throughout ‘Cold War’. In the case of synth-pop number Cave Man, the stretched-out, underwater interludes produce something genuinely innovative in its criss-crossing reference points.
Inevitably, La Big Vic turn to their technical prowess often on ‘Cold War’, and, for the most part, it’s a joy to listen to. All That Heaven Allows shows off Pearson’s superior ability on the keys, with a melodious central refrain wrestling against some Roland 303-style warbles; displaying their penchant for colliding digital and analogue, they smoothly abstract acid house and theatrical, sun-kissed pop. Meanwhile, the ease with which they slip into smoky, jazz-fused trip hop (a genre with many debts to dub) on Ave B is eye-opening, and doesn’t feel remotely forced. The only time their production panache gets in the way is on Nuclear Bomb – a blindingly bright, mostly instrumental fist pumper – complete with vocoder and testosterone-pulsing beats. It slots in with contemporary efforts by M83, Kindness and Bon Iver’s Beth/Rest by fetishising pyrotechnical 80s production, but unlike some of those contemporaries, lacks much substance.
With ‘Cold War’, La Big Vic have affirmed themselves as the eccentric pop group they were set on the path to becoming. While listing out all their influences and reference points would be a daunting task, they reveal a nuanced understanding of how useful dub’s breezy bass and elongated vocal samples are in providing much-needed breathing room. On an album as potentially too-busy as ‘Cold War’, this comes across as an essential tool. The fact that a group like Peaking Lights would also go on to record an album of dub versions is testament to what a vital genre for bounteous experimentation it remains.