Return to the Ugly Side

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By giving their second album a title that explicitly positions it as a sequel to their exceptional, eye-popping debut, Ugly Side of Love, the pigeonhole-defying Bristol duo Malachai set up a curious set of expectations. Besides suggesting a general similarity between the two efforts, the implication seems to be that this is, if not necessarily a lesser work, one that shouldn't or can't quite stand on its own merits. Return to the Ugly Side might indeed be most charitably considered as a companion piece -- and more of a supplement than a necessary complement -- but it's not exactly a retread. The overall feel of the album is comparable, with the same phantasmagoric, slightly seedy vibe, and a similar off-beat evocation of dusty, decades-old records. But this a much more subdued, streamlined affair than the gaudy, kaleidoscopic pastiche of its predecessor: if not a maturation, certainly a mellowing. Generally speaking, Return hearkens mostly to the debut's slower, murkier side -- cuts like "Fading World" and the drowsy, Geoff Barrow-assisted "Only for You" -- resulting in a set that hews much closer to the '90s trip-hop typically associated with Malachai's hometown. The genre's cinematic obsession is immediately foregrounded by the steamrolling soundtrack strings of the opening "Monsters" (an overture which turns out to be essentially an instrumental version of searing, Portishead-y album highlight "Monster"), while the gently eerie "Rainbows" invites singer Katy Wainwright for the obligatory haunted chanteuse turn. There are still moments vividly redolent of turn-of-the-'70s British rock, pop, and soul -- the crunchy hard rock guitars on "Mid Antarctica (Wearin' Sandals)"; the jaggedly funky drum beats on "Anne," and the kinetic "(My) Ambulance," although these elements feel somehow more oppressive, less sprightly, in this context. But there's a conspicuous lack of the outright rockers which lent some seriously spiky punch to the first album's paisley patchwork. An emphasis on sustained mood and texture over individuated songs isn't a terrible sound for these guys -- and they haven't entirely lost their knack for simple, effective songwriting, as demonstrated by the wry "No More Rain No Maureen" and standout "Let 'Em Fall," a deliciously spooky, menacing showcase for Gee Ealey's potently throaty R&B crooning -- although a disappointing proportion of this brief set (including its two longest cuts) winds up feeling sparse, dreary, and weirdly rudderless. That said, Malachai remain a fascinating, worthwhile, and essentially unique proposition, and there's still plenty to enjoy, for fans and newcomers alike, even in this somewhat diminished Return.

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