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Stargazing Review

by Tim DiGravina

As wonderful as Alpha's sophomore effort, The Impossible Thrill, is, Stargazing surpasses it in almost every respect; the album's perfectly dreamy, organic, and lush songs feel like more logical successors to the spellbinding Come from Heaven. Corin Dingley and Andy Jenks themselves admitted that they lost the plot when it came to melody and rhythm prior to recording the songs that make up Stargazing, but with these 14 songs, they've made a bold, gorgeous return to the heart of atmospheric trip-hop. But reaching for accessibility hasn't dampened the band's ethereal dynamics. If they previously sounded like they were channeling Massive Attack and Portishead, here they expand on influences ranging from Nick Drake, Lee Hazlewood, the Association, and John Barry. Strings and horns explode into fantastic musical flourishes, lounge-y ballads mix with sci-fi sound effects making for beautiful tension, and any kind of genre map is thrown in the trash as the duo and its quartet of vocalists paint evocative aural pictures with tender, freaky textures. Longtime vocal collaborators Wendy Stubbs, Helen White, and Martin Barnard see an addition to their fold with the soulful Prince-on-a-bender tones of newcomer Kelvin Swaby. Swaby's soulful voice is a perfect fit with Alpha, making for a brilliant change of pace on the soaring "Elvis." "Lipstick from the Asylum" and "Portable Living Room" are fine examples of the songwriting maturity of Dingley and Jenks; they allow Barnard's voice to be the focal point over sweet, bubbling electronic tones, where perhaps they might have overloaded the songs with atmospheric flourishes in the past. Anyone who appreciated the moody music of Come from Heaven will revel in Stargazing, and the album deserves to win the group new fans. While some of the group's contemporaries were releasing somewhat blundering, meandering albums, Alpha hit the ball out of the park with Stargazing and redefined intelligent and passionate electronic soul music. Stargazing sits easily among the best albums of 2003.

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