Leila Arab last graced the music world eight years ago with Courtesy Of Choice, her ‘difficult’ second album that hid its few instant classics deep behind a lot of awkward obstructions. Following up her acclaimed debut, Like Weather, was never going to be easy, but on reflection even that album had its slightly awkward moments.
Leila’s objectives were there from the word go: soulful vocals from some special guests, blended with a nonlinear approach to building electronics. Her songs have always sounded as though she was purposefully working backwards, first finding a sexy distortion effect and then building a melody, beat and bassline to suit. At worse, this approach clashed with the vocals and could turn what would have been a marvellous achievement into a slightly hollow reflection of what she perhaps initially imagined. But let’s be very clear about one thing: a premature ‘Leila idea’ is still worth double its weight in gold than most other electronic artists peddling the same, well trodden concepts. A welcome breath of fresh air, she provided a much-needed woman’s touch to electronica but by no means had fewer balls than her male contemporaries.
Though the intervening years have given enough perspective for Courtesy Of Choice to finally make a little more sense, Blood, Looms & Blooms is the culmination of the lessons Leila was clearly attempting to teach herself back in the late 1990s. To examine this, one needs to backtrack slightly. Plucked out of her studies by an eager Björk in the early ’90s, Leila was otherwise engaged for several years as the Icelandic wonder’s keyboardist, backing vocalist and live programmer where she was thrown into the mix with the likes of Nellee Hooper, Tricky and Aphex Twin – just some of the many who boarded the Björk tour bus at some point during the decade.
It was Aphex Twin who gave Leila her first opportunity to spread her wings on his own Rephlex Records, and Like Weather appeared in early 1998. The album left almost as many critics scratching their heads as it left them applauding, but was enough to grab the attention of the far more established dance imprint of XL Records to commission her follow up in 2000. Courtesy Of Choice was greeted warmly, but the head scratching undoubtedly outshone the applause this time around. Perhaps XL were expecting something a little more commercial. Perhaps Leila just wasn’t ready for a larger label yet. Perhaps she just couldn’t care less and was happy noodling away with her mates (a much more likely scenario).
It’s taken all these years to get some kind of resolution, prolonged by the loss of both her parents – an understandably major catalyst to remain hidden away and shun any form of creativity for a bit longer. Eventually, encouragement came thick and fast as Leila finally found her spiritual home on the legendary Warp label. Blood, Looms & Blooms is the kind of triumphant comeback that her ’90s contemporaries would give their iMacs for nowadays. Leila has successfully crafted an album that can turn the creepy, unsettlingly beautiful atmospherics up to eleven, but easily throw in some damn dirty, pounding beats. From the second ‘Mollie’ opens the album, her previous signature dabbles into distorted synth-laden beats are thrown under the microscope and completely exposed, the bare bones of it to be seen by all. It washes along for over six minutes, forcing hairs you didn’t even know you had to stand on end, until the final minute where a bright, clear melody breaks through the chaos and drops the track to a sudden halt. Finally all those previous experiments into distorted beats make sense. It’s enough to justify the patient wait alone.
In a way, ‘Mollie’ is quite literally a starting point for the album. As if all the songs started from this point, but all then ventured off on their own tangents. The stunning artwork that packages the album of mythologically enhanced trees, moons and chemistry sets already feels utterly appropriate. Organic and biological, but also mechanically engineered and left to develop under a pair of watchful scientific eyes. And while the album never dives quite so deeply into this ridiculously dense form of synthtronica again, it quickly branches out into numerous other directions and, with the help of some especially recruited friends, really lets its hair down. Old friends such as Luca Santucci and Roya Arab (her sister) lend their voices once more, finally becoming a part of the beauty of the songs, rather than competing for space as on previous albums, while new guests include Martina Topley-Bird and Terry Hall lavish their respective charms generously throughout. Santucci’s darkly twisted and distorted take on The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ will certainly divide the opinions of Fab Four fanatics, but together he and Leila have certainly made it their own.
Recent single ‘Deflect’ has a beat and underbelly of production so dirty it’s almost a miracle that Topley-Bird’s sweet, girlish vocals manage to take the track to even greater heights. And yet the collaboration succeeds with ease. Album closer, ‘Why Should I?’ finds Santucci back-to-back with Topley-Bird in an eerie, sensual and tender duet which, in an alternative universe, would be a classic pub singalong. The album’s other absolute highlight, ‘The Exotics’, finds Leila in one of her more assertive moods. An aquatic bubble of a track that marches along with a sludgy Mediterranean swing and grinding percussion while a distant soprano cavorts all over the track, like a siren on a cliff top calling you helplessly toward her during a storm.
It’s rare for years of patience to be rewarded with such a competent, coherent and simply chilling body of work like this, let alone one that can swoon, thump and groove all at the same time. Fingers crossed we will not have to wait as long for album number four, but should we find ourselves sat around twiddling our thumbs for another eight years, Blood, Looms & Blooms lingers on with an atmosphere of absolute triumph and a notion that only now is Leila really getting started.
[Warp; July 7, 2008]