Just a Souvenir

3 out of 5 Stars

Tom Jenkinson, the man behind the moniker Squarepusher, has built a reputation for blurring genre boundaries. His usual sound is a clever fusion of IDM (“Intelligent Dance Music”), jazz and funk. Jenkinson’s musical aims have always been progressive, and fittingly, Just a Souvenir is a prog-rock epic. The album is more guitar-focused than many of his other LPs. Also, instead of following his usual freeform jazz model of songwriting — improvising around a single theme — he pursues more intricate and definite constructions. Expanding the scope of his musical efforts, Jenkinson has created his most diverse and challenging album yet.

In Souvenir’s first slot, “Star Time 2” treads familiar ground and provides a welcoming introduction to the dense compositions that follow. Jenkinson’s bass work is elastic and mobile, giving a buoyant backbone to the piece. Clipped but cheery, an endearing synth takes up the melody. Percussion-wise, the claps and hi-hats suggest a house beat, subsequently pushing “Star Time 2” into a sort of instrumental disco. It’s one of the few danceable tracks on the album — and also the most accessible — given its traditional structure and repeated themes.

“A Real Woman” is the weirdest number on the disc, initially sounding like The Ramones’s punk anthem “Blitzkrieg Bop” as sung by a robot. Still, it’s the closest thing Souvenir has to a proper rock song, and even sports a full set of lyrics. As expected, things grow more complex: the time signature changes and the guitar melody transforms into a cascade of arpeggios. Espousing wry, oddball humor, the lyrics are a joy: “You think a lot about the world today / You think a lot about what to say / Everything you say, it should be listened to / Everything you say, it should be well understood.” It’s hard to say whether the robot vocalist is mocking humanity or courting this “real woman.”

Souvenir later moves into a three-part prog-rock instrumental suite. As a whole it’s a bit much, and “The Glass Road” stands on its own as the best of the three. Transitioning from one mood to another, “Glass Road” travels through passages of both brutal thrash-riffing and softer stretches, with elegantly blossoming modulations of the core melody. Between the xylophone, kazoo-like guitar sounds, busy jazz drumming and crunchy distorted bass, it’s an enveloping piece with a strong cosmic vibe.

Though the musical variety in Souvenir is impressive, Jenkinson’s ambition birthed a record marred by aimlessness. In particular, there are several shorter atmospheric tracks that feel like afterthoughts. “Aqueduct” is the prime example, where ominous twangs and buzzes are subjected to pin-point stereo pans while an acoustic guitar engages in slippery improvisation. While not unpleasant, it feels like fat that should have been trimmed.

Just a Souvenir is bursting with creativity but weighed down by filler. It’s an easy recommendation to fans of progressive and experimental music, but only a small drop in the oceanic prog bucket.

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