‘Voices From The Dust Bowl’

The late 1990s and early 2000s threw up a slew of Air-style ambient masterpieces – but Fragile State’s 2004 classic ‘Voices From The Dust Bowl’ was criminally overlooked. It may just well be the UK’s ‘Premiers Symptômes’ of the era

Horizontal listening has always appealed to me, from those early days with a vinyl copy of ‘Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ to streaming the latest weird gear from Loop Zeppelin. And the last 20 years in particular have thrown up a smorgasbord of ambient and easy listening gems, some that have deservedly gone on to sell zillions and others that haven’t but should have. Fragile State’s ‘Voices From The Dust Bowl’ is one such criminally missed diamond.

Fragile State were two men: keyboardist, Zero 7 collaborator and all-round jazzman Neil Cowley and Blues & Soul magazine journalist and top compilation compiler Ben Mynott. They’d already made waves with their 2002 debut ‘The Facts And The Dreams’, a long-player that featured in many end-of-year lists, but it wasn’t until the release of the follow-up, ‘Voices From The Dust Bowl’, that they really delivered the money shot. Here, at last, was the British answer to Air, an album so drenched in strings (of life) and sweeping cinematics that it made Moby’s ‘Play’ sound like a studied exercise in minimalism.

As much as Cowley and Mynott were clearly fans of both John Barry and downtempo electronica, theirs was also sound suffused with soul, blues and jazz. Some tracks really swung, like the Balearic groover ‘600 Bliss’ and the breakbeat funkathon ‘Overcurrent’. Meanwhile ‘Paper Smile’ has the sort of life-affirming chord progressions that should be available on prescription the NHS; the remix ‘Paper Tiger’ added extra beats for an even more potent dosage. Duff filler tracks? None. Strings so sci-fi you’d think Philip K Dick was at the controls? Oh yes.

I’ve heard at least half the album as a soundtrack to the sunset at beachside bars on Ibiza’s west coast (especially the epically spooky ‘Train Time’). The rest have cropped up in a variety of compilations and mixes. But as a whole, ‘Voices From The Dust Bowl’ still stands up and deserves a complete listen. Eleven years old it may be, but it still sounds as strong, together and solid as it did back in the mid-2000s. It sounds real – a collection of proper songs rather than a mish-mash of random samples.

When the album was first released I reviewed it for some American magazine and, with typically flowery prose, I said it “cocooned your ears in mellifluous mellowness” and begged readers to buy it. And as much as I hate to say “I told you so”, well, I did. Buy, buy, buy.

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