We've come to expect this kind of sumptuousness from Lee Jones; releases such as "Hug the Scary," "There Comes a Time," "As You Like" and his remix of Sideshow's "Philly Soundworks" were perfectly crafted slices of peak-time dance floor bliss. And, as part of My My, he co-produced the 2006 longplayer Songs for the Gentle, a gorgeous record that developed gracefully towards a ecstatic close.
So what's surprising about Electronic Frank, really, is how low-key it is (even granted the downbeat nature of Jones' other solo project, Hefner). There are few obvious peaks, and the tempo and tone are, for the most part, rather middling. On first listen, the drama of "MDMAzing" even seems to make the rest of the record sound a tad flat in comparison.
But, on closer inspection, these tracks reveal a wonderful depth. Like the lovely picture of a red-striped zebra on the cover, the productions on Electronic Frank are delicate confections, wonderfully crafted and very hard to dislike.
The first half of the album sounds like one very long build-up. "Theme for Frank" employs strings and vibraphone to create a subtle drama. Orchestral samples in techno can often sound jarringly contrived, but Jones' touch is light and the combination works. "Soon" is like a less lopsided version of Dinky's soupy minimal lounge sound, with a sultry female voice murmuring the title over cocktail-jazz piano tinkles and plinkety-plonk beats.
The run of tracks that follows leaves me a bit cold. You can have too much of this kind of bubbling-under mid-tempo house with its vague sense of tension building; sooner or later you just want something to erupt. Things start to lift with "Kinder Country" and "Roadwork"—warm, spacey, gently chugging house that would no doubt sound fantastic as part of a DJ set; but after all that has come before I'm still left wanting a change of air.
Echoing bass guitar and a foreboding atmosphere lend a John Barry feel to "Shoe Shine"; but it's not until the wonderful "The Secret" that Jones really hits his stride. Its sugar-coated synths and submarine basslines meander gracefully about each other; the effect is sweet and dreamy, bringing to mind the best moments of Ellen Allien and Apparat's Orchestra of Bubbles. The tracks that follow are denser, more intricate and involving: particularly worth a mention are "It Is, Isn't It," which manages to incorporate snatches of horns, brass, strings and woodwind, without sounding either crowded or corny; and "Safari," which weaves a whole menagerie into its restless groove.
Jones has obviously exercised a lot of restraint in these productions—and perhaps not all the implications of this are positive. You get the sense that restraint is actually an easy fallback for producers nowadays, and that staying carefully within the bounds of accepted taste is ultimately less brave and interesting than defying them and giving full rein to the extravagance a producer like Jones is obviously capable of. But still, beneath their veil of subtlety, these tracks conceal a wealth of charms, a richness of textures and arrangements that unfolds further with every listen.