Whatever the prolific composers and multi-instrumentalists Shawn Lee and the possibly synonymous but certainly very mysterious Clutchy Hopkins are doing, they shouldn't stop. Fascinating Fingers, their second full-length together (the also excellent Clutch of the Tiger came out in 2008), is another impressive display of musicianship, composition, and subtly ingenious avant pop knowhow. Not quite funk, not quite spacy neo-jazz, not quite electro pop, not quite blaxploitation, not quite left-field hip-hop, not quite indie electronica, the album is still, somehow, simultaneously all of these without ever sounding like anything other than something Shawn Lee has had his hands on. The composer/musician, who lives in London, certainly informs his work with that Quantic Soul Orchestra-esque nu jazz approach that is beginning to feel ubiquitous in Britain, but where Will Holland and company can sometimes fall into the realm of the nearly cheesy, Lee's restraint in all the things that made acid jazz go out of style (campy female vocals, just a few too many major sixth chords, a bass that feels just a little too funky) makes his compositions, and especially those on Fascinating Fingers, extremely good.
Strings are the new component here, but they're used well, and sparingly enough, so that they're effective and useful in conveying a tone, in pulling together a piece. The album opens with "70 MPH Isn't Fast Enough to Get Out of Nebraska," which begins with 45 seconds of rather solemn strings before launching into, contrary to what its title might suggest, what is not Morricone-inspired but instead a lazy David Axelrod-meets-Piero Piccioni composition that manages to incorporate a Brazilian-tinged triangle, a distorted key solo, a bit of tropicalia, those same strings, and a dry snare into something both coherent and enjoyable. And although "Chapter 2" begins with an Eastern European-ish string phrase, it's dropped, first in the mix, and then completely, so that that sound never dominates. Because this is pop music, after all, albeit weird and complex and ambient, and so being able to enjoy it, to relax into it instead of fighting against it, is what's most on Lee's mind. This approach therefore allows him to have the unbearable catchy "Root Trees," featuring vocals from British group the Superimposers, and an elaborate and sometimes difficult song like "Bootie Beat," which, at points, can bring to mind the Revolution, and at others, Calexico, in the same album and have it all make total sense. Lee is truly one of this century's most under-recognized geniuses, and Fascinating Fingers is just another example of why he should stop being overlooked.