Knowing that Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip and Charles Hayward of legendary avant-rockers This Heat were making an album as a quartet with John Coxon (Spring Heel Jack, Spiritualized) and experimental jazzer Pat Thomas in a single day, you’d be well within your rights to expect a freewheeling, open-ended, improv-oriented outing where electronics, art rock, free jazz, and the avant garde collide in off-kilter instrumental excursions. If you were talking about the foursome’s first recording, 2009’s About, you’d be right. But upon reconvening as more of a proper “band” under the About Group moniker for Start And Complete, the musicians in question have created another beast entirely.
The group’s first album was released on Coxon’s micro-indie Treader label, while Start And Complete comes to us courtesy of the considerably higher-profile Domino Records, and that in itself could offer an indication of About Group’s more above-ground intentions for their second collaboration. And while Start And Complete also happens to have been recorded in just one day, lo and behold, it turns out to be album of relatively straightforward songs, staying largely within the musical and lyrical conventions of the pop/rock universe.
Apparently Taylor spent quite a while putting these tunes together before bringing them into the studio, and the effort is apparent from the start. After a brief intro, the electric piano and organ riffs of “Don’t Worry” announce the arrival of a tune that bridges beautiful, Beatles-derived Britpop melodies with a ’60s soul-tinged feel, offering up a vision of what the Stereophonics might sound like at the Stax studios. The album’s first half more or less continues along this road, with more melodic, midtempo tunes of a similar orientation. In the second half, however, the other shoe begins to drop, as the more experimental side of the band members’ backgrounds rears its head.
“A Sinking Song” feels more prog than soul, while the stately “Rough And Smooth” sounds like it could have come off a classic Robert Wyatt album, and the title track contrasts Taylor’s warm, mellow vocals with a variety of artfully placed scratchings and scrapings. But the real tour de force is their version of “You’re No Good.” In the ’60s, Terry Riley put Harvey Averne’s R&B tune of the aforementioned title through all manner of sonic manipulations to create an avant-garde classic, and here the About Group takes the tune for their own tornado-like spin, eventually stretching it into a full-fledged 11-minute space/psych freakout. If you come to Start And Complete expecting more of what this ensemble’s first outing offered, this is the only track that’s likely to satisfy you, but if you approach with an open mind, prepare to be unexpectedly charmed by the whole damn thing.