Available on: PMR LP
Speaking to FACT last year, Ben Parmar, one half of the team behind record label PMR, outlined his plan to “change people’s perception of what pop music is and what it should sound like”. Sure, it’s obvious that the label already had the connections and backing to make this happen – a recent Guardian piece that compared PMR to genuinely self-made labels like Hyperdub left a bad taste – but it’s impossible to deny that the label has, by rounding up some of the underground’s most accessible acts and offering them the sort of studio advantages, advertising budget and radio connections that PMR can provide, influenced British pop music more than any other label in the last year.
The success of Jessie Ware’s Devotion is the most obvious example of the PMR machine in action, but it’s only half of the story: the label also coaxed producers like Julio Bashmore, T. Williams and L-Vis 1990 into producing their most accessible work yet, and in the sense of the former two (L-Vis has since moved away from PMR to focus on Night Slugs, producing some of his best music yet), has helped them take their careers to the next level in terms of popularity, and perhaps more crucially, publishing opportunities and booking fees. Disclosure’s Settle, however, surely marks the label’s biggest triumph to date. Last year it led to a number two single in the UK (‘White Noise’), and the album topped the iTunes UK charts within 12 hours of its release. It’s currently neck and neck with Queens of the Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork in the official UK charts and will end the week in the top two.
Disclosure are, of course, a very different proposition to Julio Bashmore and T. Williams – or even Jessie Ware, who cut her teeth as a backing singer for friends before being signed, and openly talks about how nervous she was when first recording for PMR. They’re a slick unit from a musical family, and have had management – not to mention representation through significant booking agencies – for several years now. Settle might only be Disclosure’s first album, but it’s something that’s been methodically and impressively worked towards for a while. It’s a project that’s run according to plan, rather than an underground artist falling into the mainstream and finding unlikely success.
In theory, this shouldn’t affect the actual music on Settle – there’s nothing wrong with major label pop music, and Disclosure are less manufactured than most: several songs are co-written, but they aren’t ghost-written or ghost-produced, for instance – but in practise it does. It’s hard to listen to Settle’s music without thinking of the same words that come to mind when describing the process that has led up to its release – “methodical”, “well-made”, “assured” – and although there’s not a bad song on the album, it’s notably low on surprises. Even if you’ve somehow not heard Disclosure yet, if you’ve read enough about them then you probably already know just how Settle sounds.
It’s glossy, superbly produced – in a technical sense – music that uses 4×4 house and garage as a jumping off point for modern pop songs. Every bridge is on point, every breakdown comes when you expect it, with just the right amount of reverb for added drama. It’s the album that many of the names that Disclosure cite as influences (Zed Bias, Todd Edwards) probably wish that they’d made, but although it’s very easy to admire – even listeners with the most underground of mindsets would surely admit that not only are these songs are significantly better than the majority of the dance-inspired pop in the charts at the moment (hi Martin), but come from somewhere more genuine than a lot of the competition and have far greater potential to turn listeners onto interesting less popular acts – it’s very hard to love.
In terms of variety, Settle’s pretty lacking. On a vocal-heavy album it can often be the instrumentals that stand out, but although ‘When A Fire Starts To Burn’ and the so-simple-it-hurts ‘Grab Her’ are a cut above the majority of crossover UK house doing the rounds right now (‘Stimulation’ and ‘Second Chance’, on the other hand, are pretty flaccid) they’re so stylistically similar to the rest of the album that they feel like interludes between the vocals rather than provide variation. ‘You & Me’, the last single pulled from Settle before its release, bangs harder than any of them.
It’s the vocal tracks, of course, that have made Disclosure stars. ‘Latch’, smartly positioned as Settle’s third track, still sounds as impressive as when it first dropped last year, and although opinions on ‘White Noise’ probably hinge more on one’s tolerance of Aluna Francis and her glottal stops than the backing track or the song-writing, it’s still hard to deny. Disclosure’s remix of Jessie Ware’s ‘Running’ proved that the three make for a winning combination, and Settle’s second half sees them team up again on ‘Confess To Me’, Ware impressively riding a metallic, Magnetic Man-esque bassline. Ed Macfarlane and Jamie Woon’s Settle contributions are forgettable, but Sasha Keable, currently being pushed as a post-dubstep poster girl by Polydor, comes close to stealing the show on ‘Voices’, a centrepiece to the album that recalls a less experienced Katy B.
Settle closes on ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’, a down-tempo cut that’s too restrained to make anyone lose anything but their interest, and which floats off into the distance rather than ending with a bang. Disclosure are still young, and in terms of its aims – combining house music and pop for a young British audience currently captivated with the idea of the former but reliant on the hooks of the latter – Settle succeeds. But I think that Disclosure have far more than just that in their locker, and it’s a shame that their debut album is so short on variety and surprises, and doesn’t capture the imagination past a couple of listens.