If Bonobo's 2010 album Black Sands were an actor, it would have been Ralph Fiennes—it was suave, refined and pretty posh compared to his cheekier sample-based albums. Si Green's third full-length also had a similar brooding intensity, where deep emotion came through in subtle string arrangements that were the musical equivalent of a trembling lip. In many ways it projected an old-fashioned English sophistication that, like Fiennes, was a hit across the Atlantic, where he relocated to record this follow-up.
The North Borders also sounds quite English in a more modern sense. Some of the artists Green enlisted for 2012's Black Sands Remixed showed his affiliation with London's bass scene, and sure enough, fractured two-step rhythms and downbeat melodies are a hallmark here. "Emkay," with its shades of MJ Cole, has probably the toughest beat here, and while "Don't Wait"'s is nominally housey, its pace and twinkling melodies make it seem more like a torchlit procession.
Green may have moved many miles himself, but he hasn't strayed too far from Black Sands' musical territory. There's a similar mood of dreamy melancholy, enhanced by production that's opulent without being ostentatious. "Cirrus"'s layers of rippling chimes and percussion feel like sheets of silk, while plucked harps amidst the cut-up vocals and sub-bass tremors of "Jets" conjure up a Burial soundtrack to Narnia rather than South London.
Much attention will focus on Erykah Badu's appearance on "Heaven For The Sinner," yet despite her star status this magisterial piece of neo-soul doesn't overshadow the album as a whole. "First Fires," featuring Grey Reverend's molasses vocals, recalls Massive Attack's Terry Callier collaboration "Live With Me," and suggests Green makes Massive Attack records better than they do themselves these days.
Indeed, sumptuous and accomplished as it is, The North Borders echoes other great electronic soul records like Protection, the aforementioned Sincere or SBTRKT's debut. It might be dismissed as dinner party music by those with a hunger for more experimental fare, but The North Borders is charming, fascinating and a touch mysterious—exactly the qualities you'd want in your dinner party guest.