The return of Rae & Christian

Those of us who suffer, like Anthony H Wilson, from an excess of civic pride have had a bit of a problem over the last twenty years. Namely that Manchester, the wellspring of our pride, hasn’t had the musical chops to justify its reputation. Post-Madchester, after the implosion of the Happy Mondays and the wheels slowly falling off The Stone Roses, we’ve been struggling. There are always a few bands: The 1975 most recently, Elbow, Badly Drawn Boy, I Am Kloot, Delphic. We still manage more in a year than Birmingham does in a decade, but for us that’s not really good enough.

For a few years, back at the turn of the millennium, Rae & Christian were my personal standard-bearers for Manchester music. A DJ/production duo who worked with vocalists and had their own label, Grand Central Records, run out of the interstitial space of the Northern Quarter, they did the quintessential Manchester music thing: they smashed together all the music they liked and did it better. Northern Sulphuric Soul, the debut, mixed turntablism, icy soul, hip hop, trip hop, and classy pop together. The 2001 follow-up, Sleepwalking, was even better. Complete with a picture of the pair wearing pyjamas in iconic Manchester location platform 13 of Piccadilly Station, it featured The Pharcyde, The Congos, Bobby Womack on two tracks both better than anything on his recent album, and vocalist Siron on a closing track that’s the break-up anthem you always needed but never heard. And then?

And then nothing. Not strictly true. Mark Rae released a 2002 album, Rae Road, which didn’t impress me enough to get his second solo album. Artists from Grand Central Records cropped up around the place. Rae & Christian split just as music moved into the iPod Shuffle era and the genre-hopping they pioneered became commonplace, just as every other dance act decided “Hey, actually this song works better with a vocal,” years before European dance music and American hip hop learned how to complement each other.

Now? Now they’re back. Out of nowhere new album Mercury Rising is released on Monday October 20th and, as reward for being excited about it on Twitter, I’ve had chance to listen to it in advance. 12 years after their last, finding me three careers, a marriage and a child and down the road, my hip hop listening gone from wary to everyday, my clubbing days almost out of sight behind me, here it is. How is it?

The first surprise: how unchanged the sound is. The gap could’ve been two years rather than 12. Hip hop beats, scratching, flowing melodies, acoustic instrumentation supplemented by programmed basslines. A bunch of collaborators I’m only vaguely acquainted with creating songs, in the most valuable sense, that you hear and create a space in your head you want them to fill again. A range of different, contrasting textures that seem to come from the same place, the same heart, the same melting pot of influences. An album that you immediately want to listen to again.

The second surprise: how contemporary it sounds. Rae & Christian were only slightly ahead of their time, but they were ahead of a dying world where club kids abhorred guitars, where hip hop was still scary, where the purity of music in any given pigeonhole was thought to be a good thing. They never believed in boundaries, and now neither does anyone else. An acoustic guitar with a heavy breakbeat, samples rubbing up against synths, rappers sharing records with indie vocalists; all part of the fabric of our current musical moment and all on this album.

Mercury Rising is an album of tracks. The best are the opening Happy, an instantly warm groove with Mark Foster of Foster The People adding a sweet vocal line and even whistling, pulsing guitar mini-drama 1975 with collaborator Diagrams, the lounge-folk of The Ballad of Roza Sharina with Ed Harcourt, the bouncy, friendly rap of Favourite Game with Jake Emlyn, the closing epic instrumental title track. But those are just highlights. There’s little you’d flick past if it came on shuffle which, in 2013, is close to the highest praise.

I don’t put CDs I’ve played back on the shelf immediately. They queue up next to the stereo, a reminder of what I’ve listened to recently. While I listened to Mercury Rising, I looked up and saw that Sleepwalking was there, probably played within the last month. And that wasn’t because I was on some 00s nostalgia kick. It’s probably, in the last 12 years, always been played within the last month. Mercury Rising will probably be the same.

Rae-christian-mercury-rising

Mercury Rising is released via Late Night Tales on October 20th.

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