A ridiculously accomplished debut album named after a bird you’ve never heard of
The elaenia is a curious little bird common across South America, but one that is often incorrectly identified because of the existence of no less than 18 sub-species, many of which look more or less the same. Accurate identification requires a degree of patience, persistence and a keen ear, because when all else fails, it’s each sub-species’ unique call that finally reveals which one is which.
Naming his debut Floating Points full-length after this elusive avian seems to typify Sam Shepherd’s well-read nature and his idiosyncratic approach to music. A crazily well-educated guy, the 29-year-old Londoner has an IQ that’s probably as high as the number of records he owns, and takes the same amount of care over his studies as he does his approach to making music. This project was some five years in the making and involved hunting down rare synths just to add brief moments of texture, building equipment and stringing up his home studio with a web of patch cables all in an effort to get the sounds just right.
The result is a selection of tracks augmented by live players that traverses styles carefully, with no suggestion that Shepherd simply wanted to throw the kitchen sink at the studio to show off his knowledge of musical genres.
This is, first and foremost, electronic music, but it is also soulful, recalling the instrumental stretches on Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ while at the same time the Fender Rhodes-y stabs and vamps on ‘For Marmish’ have an echo of Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea’s work on Miles Davis’ more extreme electric jazz moments. That this set also takes in funky breaks, Autechre-style wonkiness and thrillingly fizzy synth arpeggios might seem hugely incoherent, but somehow it all hangs together perfectly. Possibly once again nodding to the bird that gave this release its title, ‘Elaenia’ also incorporates moments of languid Latin rhythms, a warm, summery vibe that adds a further rich dimension to the seven pieces here.
The entire spread of musical innovation on display is best exemplified by the three-part minor symphony ‘Silhouettes (I, II & III)’, a 10-minute opus that contains so much detail it doesn’t sound the same twice – shuffling jazz kit work, shards of synths, loose keyboard riffs, mournful strings, noir angles and so on. It might seem monumentally epic and ridiculously overwrought, but one suspects that Shepherd probably composed this in his head while writing his PhD thesis in neuroscience.
Records like this that cover so much ground in such an effortlessly causal manner don’t come along very often. When they do, they often represent the high-water mark of an artist’s creative endeavours, after which everything else pales in comparison. If ‘Elaenia’ is just one tentative step on the road for Shepherd, what he could be capable of a few albums further into his career will be worth waiting patiently for.