Sunday, 12 January 2014

Album of the Week #8

Artist: Ugly Duckling
Album: Journey to Anywhere
Year: 2001
Label: XL Recordings

There are often clear points of reference when you're trying to place the era of a piece of music- the sound itself, the production and the (sometimes questionable) fashion of the artist all tend to be good starting points. Listen to an early Kinks album and you could pretty much imagine what they look like, where they're from and what year the record was released in - not that that's a bad thing! Similarly, listening to a Human League record screams 'THE 1980s!!' from the first few bars: a glance at their definitely questionable fashion choices merely confirms it.

But some groups manage to defy this notion. Unique artists such as Bowie or The Beatles transcend time and sound by releasing music that sounds current and fresh whenever it's heard, whilst Television's 1977 album Marquee Moon is essentially 2001's Is This It pumped full of steroids. Other artists tend to go the other way. Despite releasing their debut record in 2012, The Allah-Las' music sounds so quintessentially 60s that the invention of time travel suddenly seems a very realistic possibility. Although the jump in time isn't quite so drastic for Ugly Duckling, the idea remains the same.

An album that's firmly rooted in the late 80s golden era of hip-hop but released in 2001, Journey to Anywhere is like the lovechild of 3 Feet High and Rising and Midnight Marauders. It retains the hallmarks of its forefathers - namely heavy sampling and scratching - and fittingly, the style of the record can be ascertained from the sampling involved. Alongside the staple James Brown sample, Ugly Duckling also plunder from the likes of Junior Mance (Jazz), The Sylvers (Disco), Leon Haywood (Funk) and Joe Cuba (Latin Boogaloo) to create an essential jazz rap record.

The varied influences that shape the sound of the album are immediately evident from the first few seconds of Introduckling. Trumpets lifted from Iguana, an almost-unknown 70s British prog rock group, and then a beat from disco pioneer Hamilton Bohannon are a taster of things to come. Despite the playful and laid-back nature of Journey to Anywhere, the length and breadth of Ugly Duckling's musical influences cannot be understated.

It's music that can't fail to put a smile on your face. Sure, in places it's light-hearted and humorous, but don't let that distract you from the fact that this is a highly polished and consistent hip-hop album. Clocking in at 51 minutes and omitting the often tiresome interludes that have plagued other rap albums, it's a record that's stuffed full of radio-friendly singles, even though it never broke out of the underground to threaten daytime radio playlists.

Where their contemporaries in sound De La Soul tended to address social and political issues in their lyrical content, Ugly Duckling steer clear of that, and it's part of the album's appeal. The record isn't dressed up as anything it's not- Pick Up Lines concentrates on picking up girls in clubs - Honey was offended by the pick up line is the catchy refrain here - whilst Friday Night simply tells the tale of the group performing on a Friday night.

The standout tracks come in the carefree cuts A Little Samba and I Did It Like This, where skilfull sampling and catchy refrains are showcased once more. Despite arriving a full twelve years after 3 Feet High and Rising, Journey to Anywhere could justly be placed on a similar pedestal to the former. It captures a golden moment of time in the history of hip-hop and reinvents it effortlessly. Forward-thinking it may not be, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't find this a hugely enjoyable listen.

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