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Rustin Man - Drift Code Music Album Reviews

Former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb finally steps to the microphone on his first album in 16 years, a meticulously arranged wonder steeped in English folk and proggy vibes.

Remember when Bono generously allowed The Edge to sing that one song on Rattle and Hum? A flicker of shock tends to register when you hear a member of a beloved band who is not the vocalist sing for the first time. It’s like hearing an internet personality interviewed on a podcast— “Wait, they sound like that?” During his seven years in Talk Talk, a period in which the group mutated from the routine synthpop of The Party’s Over to the astonishing art-rock of Spirit of Eden, bassist Paul Webb never sang lead. Mark Hollis, owner of one of the great expressive voices of the 1980s, had that job covered. Even when Webb resurfaced during the early 2000s as Rustin Man, he shied from the spotlight, releasing the quiet gem Out of Season in collaboration with another mood-altering vocal talent, Beth Gibbons.

But at last, Webb’s own voice is the centerpiece of an album—Rustin Man’s rich and rewarding Drift Code, his first record in 16 years. Yes, Webb sang a bit in the short-lived .O.rang, but here he is writing specifically for his surprisingly commanding, unmistakably English warble. At times, he even sounds like late-career Bowie, adventurous and a bit haughty thanks to a distinguished nasality. This is particularly true of opener “Vanishing Heart,” which rises in both urgency and volume as Webb narrates an escape from a suffocating marriage over labyrinthine piano. He deftly sings harmony and counter-harmony with himself, too, as in the clamorous final refrains of “Martian Garden.” (Though Hollis grew to avoid anything resembling a chorus, Webb doesn’t shy away from legitimate vocal hooks.) And he sometimes stretches words beyond recognition, as when he renders the title phrase of finale “All Summer” as a six- and seven-syllable maze.

These nine songs collectively recall English folk, 1970s prog grandeur, and the work of great British eccentrics like Robert Wyatt and Syd Barrett. Organs, upright piano, and even a euphonium contribute to this vintage sensibility. Webb momentarily stumbles on “Judgement Train,” a clunky blues shuffle in which the singer envisions himself facing off against God in what O.A.R. would call a crazy game of poker. (The track’s sinister video, in fact, makes good on this concept.) But the gorgeous subsequent track, “Brings Me Joy,” makes up for it, with Webb’s lead set against a choral web of voices, including an angelic falsetto that feels plucked from an old Disney score. “Light the Light” is a pointy exercise in 7/8 time, while “The World’s in Town” boasts a sci-fi guitar breakdown before its spacious outro.

Drift Code doesn’t sound like Talk Talk (nor anything that could be described as “post-rock”), but what it shares with the band’s best work is both the sense of being adrift in time and a meticulous approach to production. These arrangements flicker with intricate melodic detail and nonconventional instrumentation. “Our Tomorrows,” for instance, concludes with a rousing trombone chorus, while “Light the Light” embellishes its staccato piano with wah-wah guitar and a fleeting xylophone coda. It might take some time to hear that last detail, as with the hammered sitar, flugelhorn, French horn, clavioline, and pandeiro that pepper the record. Webb seems to have taken Talk Talk’s interest in unusual instrumentation with him.

Talk Talk’s legacy is so coated in silence and mystique that Drift Code’s mere existence feels like a perplexing gift. When a member of this band emerges from the ether, you pay attention; there will be, after all, no reunion tour. And, in this case, you mutter, “That’s what his voice sounds like?” with welcome surprise.

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