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John Roberts: Fences (Dial)

John Roberts’ second album on Dial veers rather clearly away from the 4-to-the-floor house motifs of his debut. Glass Eights suggested an organic palette of sounds, referencing live instruments and arrangements while still playing true to house music tropes. With Fences, however, Roberts has more or less dropped those conventions and moved onto something more unique and personal. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from “Palace,” though, the second track (after a delicate, chamber-music-inspired opener), which is the most rooted in dance music of the whole album. The title track also is loyal to the dancefloor with its steady dance beat, although its arrangement reflets the stylistic shift heard in his Paper Frames EP last year; lots of pizzicato strings and detailed effects. Most of the time, however, Roberts veers pretty far away from the dancefloor, and I wholeheartedly approve of the results. “Plaster” provides a detour into sounds that recall the LA beat scene (particularly that filtered hip hop synth lead), while “Mussels” is an odd waltz-time number based around pizzicato strings and guitar, with a vaguely tribal quality that reminds me of Rainbow Arabia or The Knife without any of their histrionics. Elsewhere he touches on dubstep, as heard in the plodding halfbeat of “Shoes” (pun intended, when waiting for the other shoe to drop?), or in the heavy-handed stop and go of “Calico.” Compared to Glass Eights, rhythm is more front and center here, always in stark contrast to his choice of instrumentation and arrangement — that juxtaposition of strings and heavy percussion is at the heart of what makes Fences such an oddly intriguing and engaging album.

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