British dance group Above and Beyond traded its techno gismos for a golden harp, a cello, and a band of merry orchestra men to craft one of the most refreshing and delightful albums of the year so far. With Acoustic, the trio of Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness, and Paavo Siljamaki took its popular club hits and gave them an acoustic spin with a 15-piece orchestra to back the sound-which is apparently as acoustic as the band can get.
What’s remarkable is how cohesive the album comes off. The album is essentially a batch of remixes-serious remixes. Above and Beyond took tracks from all across its works and molded them into an album that, for those unfamiliar with the band’s dance background, feels simply original. The record gives a sense that Above and Beyond could have been making this sort of album for years.
The members of Above and Beyond-musicians themselves-receive help from a talented vocal trio. The band is joined by frequent vocal contributor Zoe Johnston and relative newcomers Annie Drury and Alex Vargas on Acoustic. The album is made largely though the partnership of these two trios.
The album kicks off with the wispy lullaby, “Miracle.” Drury’s vocals take center stage. Her voice carries a certain softness that carries the rolling arrangement well. By the end, one can’t help but wonder if it was ever really a dance song in the first place. The next two tracks carry the same sort of lullaby, and by the end of “Satellite,” the album’s third track, the trend has gotten repetitive, lulling, if you will. The arrangement still has an enchanting smoothness, but the shtick is getting a tad familiar.
Vargas, the sole male vocalist, joins Drury at the end of “Satellite” to give the track a needed spark. Vargas takes the next two out of the next three tracks and gives the album the edge it needs. “Thing Called Love” and “Sun and Moon” are two highlights of the well-rounded album. “Thing Called Love” might be the album’s most dance-like arrangement. Vargas’s voice rises and growls “You live your life just once / So don’t forget about a thing called love.” He gives an edge to what was becoming a monotonous album. Not that Johnston and Drury are not delightful, but Above and Beyond was clever to manage the flow here. Acoustic and remix albums have a tendency to feel disjointed with each track doing its each work, but Above and Beyond does well to mold a whole new album of scattered remixes.
The moment many fans were waiting for came in the middle of the album, when the band’s most popular song, “Sun and Moon,” finally makes a showing on the project, with Vargas again supplying the vocals. What’s telling in “Sun and Moon”-and the album in general-is how Grant, McGuinness, and Siljamaki take a step back and allow soft arrangements and soaring vocals to rule the album. The band certainly took the idea of an acoustic to heart, one which softens and slows the song to focus on the vocals and lyrics. This is exemplified in “Sun and Moon.” The acoustic version does not rise and fall like the original version but tumbles in a delightful fashion. The original is a song you simply can’t get out of your head, and the new version is much the same in its appeal, but decidedly different in execution.
The latter half of the album carries much of the same rhythm as the first. Johnston belts out a classic in “Good For Me” and Drury somehow reemerges with an edge to match her softness in “On a Good Day.” It’s again surprising how the album feels so self-contained as it deals mainly with falling in and out of love.
There’s a sense that Above and Beyond’s Acousticis meant as a validation of the band itself. Can a techno dance group make a traditional album? Yes. Can they make a great traditional album? A resounding yes.