UNKLE has long suffered the fate of many bands with spectacular and universally praised debut albums – it has never been able to live up to the high expectations set so early in its career. The band’s only constant member, James Lavelle, set himself up for failure on his own by inviting DJ Shadow to collaborate on that debut, Psyence Fiction. Fresh off his own groundbreaking debut, Endtroducing….., DJ Shadow came on board and helped build the dark environment and brilliant beats found on UNKLE’s debut. Once Shadow left the band after their Psyence Fiction tour, Lavelle faced an uphill battle. There aren’t many DJ Shadows out there. He recruited Richard File for his follow-up album, Never, Never, Land, which came five years later and failed to live up to high expectations.
Fast forward to 2010. The band has once again shifted line-ups, as File left in 2008 and has been replaced by Pablo Clements of the Psychonauts. After releasing one more studio album, 2007’s War Stories, and many more remixes, B-sides, and companion albums, UNKLE has returned with its fourth proper full-length, Where Did the Night Fall. While the cast of guest vocalists — including Mark Lanegan, The Black Angels, and Sleepy Sun — are not quite as recognizable as those belonging to past efforts (the likes of Thom Yorke and Josh Homme appeared on previous albums), they each add a new perspective to each song, some better than others.
Guest performances by ELLE J and Gavin Clark on “On a Wire” and “Falling Stars” prove to be repetitive and forgettable, while Katrina Ford makes her voice known on standout “Caged Bird”, and Sleepy Sun singer Rachel Williams does her best BjÃ¶rk impression on “Follow Me Down”. When Lavelle decides to take the mic for himself on “Ablivion”, the outcome is one of the better songs on the album, with a heavily processed beat covered by layers of strings and synths.
While mostly hit or miss, the album starts gaining ground at its end. In “The Healing”, Gavin Clark redeems his previous lackluster work on “Falling Stars” and takes the helm of an exciting song that ranks among the album’s best. The back-to-back punch of “The Healing” and album-closer “Another Night Out” easily takes the title of album climax. UNKLE saved the best for last, and Mark Lanegan’s unmistakable gravelly voice ends the album on a beautiful and somber note. The final two songs left me wanting for more, but unfortunately the rest of the album isn’t up to par.
While the album has some strong songs, proving that Lavelle and company are still good for something, Where Did the Night Fall suffers the same fate as his other albums — they’re just not Psyence Fiction. That’s not to say bands should remain static or try to replicate their best work to a tee, but like War Stories and Never, Never, Land, there’s just something missing (DJ Shadow, perhaps?). The production sounds great as always with UNKLE, and there’s a tangible sexiness that is stronger than ever, which seems to be what they were going for based on the album cover. But in the end, the album gets bogged down by toss-away grooves and forgettable guest singers. There’s some here to like, but just not enough to love.