Back the early 1990s someone put something in Bristol's water called 'trip hop' and the city has been churning out quality musicians ever since. If New Orleans is the home of jazz, Bristol is its creative, rebellious but immensely likeable prodigy. And it's from the shady backstreets of Clifton that the latest incarnation of lounge jazz has emerged. Gloriously, quietly, and steeped in Bristol's musical heritage comes Ilya's debut album They Died For Beauty.
Although singer Joanna Swan and writer Nick Pullin have been around for quite a while on their local gig circuit, it was their recent collaboration with producer Dan Brown which gave them the creative space and resources to record their first album. Fusing sweeping, cinematic soundscapes with enigmatic lyrics, quirky sampling and lazy brushed drum beats the tracks ease along with a foggy blend of euphoria and melancholy. Joanna Swan holds this orchestral synthesis together with her deep, rich, smoky voice. And Dan Brown has managed to create something that sounds both genuinely professional and organic, incorporating an amazing array of instruments, styles and genres. With shades of Air, Zero 7, Goldfrapp, Portishead and even James Bond themes, Ilya have managed to carve out their own voice and create something both familiar yet distinctive.
Opening track and former single Bellissimo starts with a simple, unhurried bass-line on which they build multiple layers of sound, from soothing harps to plinking banjos, a single clarinet and swelling cinematic strings. Amidst this assembly of sound travels the distinctive yet subdued voice of Swan, carrying shades of Nina Simone and infusing the lyrics with a sublime measure of French.
Bellissimo is followed by Quattra Neon; an upbeat jazzy number which oozes chic and shows off Swan's sense of utter enjoyment with Björk-like moments of unintelligible randomness.
There's evidence of the influence of both Zero 7 and Portishead in Bliss and Heavenly. The latter pulses with a looping bass-line, echoing piano chords and operatic samples scrambled into a dark, grinding groove. A driving brass section injects a 70s blues soundtrack into the fluid laid-back funk mix.
Next comes the quietly catchy Soleil Soleil, which hums softly with echoes of Air's Moon Safari. There's something incredibly light and otherworldly about this track which floats above a subtle backdrop of electro-distortion - a blend which is held together effortlessly by Swan's breezy voice and Brown's tight production.
The lightness of the previous tracks is contrasted with Pretty Baby. A darkly seductive, slightly unnerving track which reverberates with the edginess of GoldFrapp's Felt Mountain and lingers with a throbbing undercurrent of quiet menace and discord. There is an ever present tension between the song's quiet, Kate Bush-like melodrama and a constantly restrained potential to break out into a clashing rock anthem, suggesting that there's more to Ilya than commercially-led, made-to-measure 'background music'. Saying that, All For Melody comes close to falling into that category, feeling overproduced and easily forgettable.
But Ilya are quickly back on track with Happy And Weak. Howling wind whispers menacingly in the background as the haunting lyrics glide overhead before the track lifts and lilts into a delicate love song. This alternation between major and minor keys, optimistic and ominous lyrics, and reflective and dramatic tempo gives the song a dreamlike quality, halfway between a nightmare and a love story. A musical twilight where wistful laments weave between Spanish flamencos and gentle love songs. Hard to describe, incredible to listen to - a multi-layered medley of styles which really shouldn't work half as well as it does.
And finally we arrive at the title track, They Died For Beauty, which turns out to be a glorious tribute to the James Bond themes of the late 60s and early 70s; Shirley Bassey meets Massive Attack over a dry Martini at a Latin jazz festival. What more can I say?
The only downside to this album is that due to the almost universal incursion of trip hop on our lives, we suffer an incessant overexposure to it. Trendy bars, designer clothes shops, your friends' dinner parties, stylish adverts selling everything from cars to perfume - it's everywhere. Ilya's Bellissimo has already been seconded to sell the latest Cacharel perfume!
We're subconsciously saturated with trip hop and lounge jazz, so much so that when we hear something of genuine quality and imagination, like Ilya, our instinctive reaction is 'that sounds awfully familiar'. And it does, but that's no reason to dismiss it. Being original and sounding original aren't always the same thing, and if you take the time to really listen to this nugget of musical inspiration, you'll hear what I mean.
:: Tom West