Freeze Frame

This is the sound of Brit hip hop. Or is it hip Britpop? Sometimes with Hood, it's hard to tell

The storm starts with a glitchy crackle, like an army of ants marching across a microphone. Just outside, you can hear the steady repetition of a passing train's wheels rubbing against the tracks. A few moments later, you listen to its whistle. The electric bristle of falling ice begins to break along hairline fractures, producing even more minuscule scatterings of sound that are nearly overtaken by the tinny din of wind against steel. Or perhaps it's the far-off clatter of factory work. Or footsteps hurrying home. No one says anything for more than a minute and a half, which seems like a very long time. And then you hear a small voice. "I know I'll rise again," it sings, almost to itself. But the "I" stutters, as if it's not so sure of its own prediction.

So begins "The Winter Hit Hard," one of the most poignant tracks on English band Hood's Cold House (Aesthetics). The Leeds-based musicians, fronted by vocalist Chris Adams and his brother Richard, produce a sound that seems so encased in glass that you almost forget the album was produced inside a studio. In fact, "The Winter Hit Hard" seems to have been recorded within the setting that appears on the front of the album: The cover art is a blurry photo of England's Yorkshire moors, a barren area made famous by the Brontë sisters. (The region is also, according to British daily the Guardian, a place where bodies that have been unearthed from shallow graves are temporarily laid to rest before being permanently reburied.)

You can just imagine Cold House borrowing its noise from the surrounding housing complexes, the damp brownstones where folks head home from factory jobs to watch Neighbours or EastEnders. But then you remember: Cold House was performed on laptops and sequencers. Strange how the hum of industrial life in process is generated more believably by its end products.

But maybe that's just the sound of Brit hip hop. Or is it hip Britpop? Sometimes with Hood, it's hard to tell: "They Removed All Trace That Anything Had Ever Happened Here" initially feels like synthetic guitars playing over an Aphex Twin track, but then cLOUDDEAD's Dose One slips his voice into the disjointed melody, rapping in incomprehensibly mechanical words that somehow snap into the grand scheme like a final Lego. And "This Is What We Do to Sell Out(s)" inhabits the tenuous overlap between indie and popular cultures that so often defines the U.K. music scene: The parentheses convert the title into a double message, suggesting that the song is both a violent threat to major-label icons and an instruction manual for how to assume their position. Transitioning from a skittish Autechre intro into what resembles a more fanciful Kid A track, a timid Adams asks, "Did you ever lie awake at night/And think about your life as a child?...Or do you even think at all?" It's a question that's particularly suited to crabby innovators-cum-magazine cover boys like Thom Yorke and Damon Albarn, both of whom act more infantile than creatively playful these days.

Hood for thought--especially from a group who, just a few songs before, insisted, "Because you're innocent, I know that you won't survive." Yet even this fatalistic statement seems uncertain, as so many of Adams's declarations do. The vocals break up into smaller chunks just as they're being uttered, and thus the lyrics are filled with such uncertainty about the future that they feel almost unwittingly optimistic. No wonder Hood's fans are so emotionally confused: On the band's discussion board, one user muses, "Good thing there isn't a CD compilation with all of Hood's singles, 'cuz I would buy it and it'd make me happy. I'd hate that."

It's the comfort you find in being sad. The woozy glee you get from a certain minor chord. The romanticization of things like damp English brownstones and storms. The disintegration of melodies, speaking voices, and city sounds. Hood stops the world to melt with you--and then they suspend all of these things in ice.

 
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