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Album Review

Europa 51's Abstractions sounds more or less what one would expect from a side project featuring members of the High Llamas, Stereolab, and Imitation Electric Piano (a side project, itself): It's playful, breezy, and smart, but also a little slight here and there. As with the three groups' main work, there's a willingness to experiment and play with sound, nods to kitsch, and some truly beautiful moments sandwiched in between the overtly clever ones. What may come as something of a surprise is the palette of sounds with which Europa 51 chooses to work. Instead of slathering on the analog synths, the group goes for a largely acoustic mix of bluegrass, folk, pop, and jazz that, from time to time, they augment with bits of Krautrock and electronica. It's a sound that's somewhat akin to Japancakes' expansive rustic symphonies, although much shorter and more structured. Indeed, songs like "Folkmaster Flex" and the pickin' and grinnin' bluegrass/Krautrock fusion of "Radio Rodeo" fairly radiate warmth, making this one of the most organic-sounding albums on which that this crew has played in some time. "Free Range Corona" starts out in a similar vein with a "Home on the Range"-style melody played by a banjo and guitar before gaining momentum and turning into a rock song. Several other stylistic twists and turns wind their way through Abstractions, including the homespun murder mystery theme "Realism of the Illusion," which mixes a bouncy bass, fluttering zithers, and tinkling pianos into darkly playful, jazzy fun. Perhaps the most startling track on the album might be "Society for the Prevention of New Music," which, aside from its witty title, finds the group exploring previously uncharted territory: Celtic music. Surprisingly — or, considering the group's penchant for unusual arrangements, maybe not — the uillean pipes, fiddles, and bodhrans work well on that track, lending a different kind of experimental edge than what's usually expected. Indeed, the most typical song on Abstractions — the shimmery, vibe-driven "Europa 51" — is one of the album's weakest. It's the best songs, however, that make it worth purchasing, especially for die-hard Stereolab fans, since they feature what are probably some of the last performances by that band's Mary Hansen before her untimely death in December 2002. "Voyeurism" sets her lovely "la la las" in a hypnotic wash of vibes, guitar, and brass, resulting in a unique fusion of droning folk and jazz. "Four Steps in the Sun," meanwhile, is one of the best High Llamas tracks that never appeared on one of their albums, mixing Hansen's sweet, slightly fragile voice with brass, banjo, and keyboards into a wistful ode to summer. Most of Abstractions, in fact, measures up to the minor gems that have appeared on their main projects. While this is definitely a side project, Europa 51 is, fortunately, a creative and unique one.


Genre: Electronic

Years Active: '00s

A supergroup/side project involving members of Stereolab, the High Llamas, and Laika, Europa 51 features Stereolab's drummer/percussionist Andy Ramsay and bassist Simon Johns (also of Imitation Electric Piano), as well as composer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Russell. Multi-instrumentalist Marcus Holdaway, percussionist Dominic Murcott, and guitarist John Bennett of the High Llamas and Stereolab's Dominic Jeffery and the late Mary Hansen also...
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Abstractions, Europa 51
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