Released in 1995 when the ‘jazz not jazz’ ethos allowed labels such as Dorado, Mo’ Wax and Kevin Beadle‘s Clean Up records to unite music makers of simpatico scenes – and in doing so showcasing how London would later give rise to the ‘broken beat’ movement – ‘Assimilation’ was more deceptive, much deeper in its construction and objectives than might have been originally thought. As much Bronx as Bristol with an emphasis on guitars and soul together with echo chambers and programmed beats.
For six days-a-week, seven days too long, at my record shop workplace in Notting Hill, this debut album by Charlie Lexton played on a tin-pot hi-fi at work. With often darkly-defined skies outside and many unpredictable customers inside, be they a well-known Antipodean ex-smackhead or a wild man regularly relieving himself in a corner of the shop’s basement, this LP soothed and excited me in equal measure.
Nicely pressed on two twelves, its sleeve-notes detail a list of ‘assimilated’ influences which encompass muppets Bert and Ernie and a pipe-toting Mexican Zapatista leader. In total, they represent a map of sorts to the actual sounds on this long-player: a knitted sprawl containing a spool of this and a clip of that with a pattern of its own making.
Pre-internet, ‘Assimilation’ was an aural signpost to the still-tantalising MTA-riding, shrink-wrapped and block-blaring New York hip hop, whose recorded achievements seemed Olympian and mythical in allure. But this is a (then) modern English album, borne out of an introspective time, sharing some of its composite parts shared with others. A CB on a common wavelength in other words.
A twinning of aching melancholia and musicality here – similar to that of Original Rockers and the early, rootsy Massive Attack – ensured enough warmth and heart to qualify this as quasi-soul and not simply a weak variation on digi dub or, much worse, trip hop. The album’s moody and mystical minor keys could have graced a release on drum and bass labels Creative Source or Good Looking whilst a sweet and straight cover of ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’ nods to another Vietnam-themed Nineties release, The Aloof‘s ‘Never Get Out of the Boat’ in its fluid and lush sonics (Lexton’s re-work steers the song into the waters of The Clash‘s later dubbier releases and, in doing so, inadvertently celebrates the intrinsic oddness of the ‘Sandinista’ album track, showing how far the punk group travelled, musically); lastly, deftly twisted ribbons of drums on occasional display echo the intricate nimbleness of two other studio boffins Plug aka Luke Vibert and Squarepusher, who were also making waves at this mid-Nineties mark.
Whilst those two gentlemen speeding into a future of their own making, intent on following Aphex Twin‘s lead in making machinery serve its master, Lexton seemed more Reds Leb and Stripe, content to poke around and find his thing in the sounds and influences of his predecessors. The result is a multi-textured and lovingly layered sound which can appear as if an experiment in testing what someone with a heartfelt understanding of black sounds could achieve. By that reckoning, it deserves to be placed next to the recorded work of David Toop and not ‘Duck Rock’ by Malcolm McLaren.
Perhaps the album closest in kindred spirit is ‘My Life In the Bush of Ghosts’ but there’s a more judicious, paring selection of ingredients; more of a focus on grooving rather than the sometimes edgy, overloaded confrontation within David Byrne and Brian Eno‘s 1981 album (though ‘Regiment’ could appear on either album).
Given the recent tweets by @JohnCleese, and the UK’s continuing debates over national identity and immigration, an easily assimilated fusion was and still is an important strength of this album. Along with DJ Shadow, DJ Premier and all other sampling dons, Lexton had a dense blueprint of what worldly music could sound like when unfiltered by a radio or TV broadcast from elsewhere on the planet but instead direct from a globally united studio, blues party or metropolitan street.