The tentative return of Dubstar

by 5:4

Having documented my love of Dubstar‘s music in a fairly exhaustive retrospective of their music a couple of years back, i was excited to hear that—following some rather acrimonious goings-on last year—the group had decided to get together to record a song for the new Amnesty International fundraising compilation, PEACE. Overall, the project is an impressive one; a collection of 182 songs, which can be downloaded following a donation to Amnesty that starts at a paltry €5 (of course, you can pay more if you wish). You can read more about the project, stream songs and donate/download at their rather nicely-designed interactive website here. It became available earlier this week and, as yet, i haven’t even scratched the surface of such a vast compilation (which amounts to 12½ hours of music); but i had no hesitation in starting with Dubstar’s contribution, a cover of The Passions’ “I’m in Love with a German Film Star”.

In a rather fitting metaphor for the reality of the group’s members in recent times, the song emerges out of distortion and noise, settling into a restrained, rather minimal backdrop of bassline, guitar and soft drums. And then it happens: Sarah Blackwood opens her mouth, and immediately the tingles down the spine begin in earnest, and one is lost in a welter of feelings and sensations that propel me back a decade, to the last time my ears heard anything of the kind. Blackwood’s voice is unique and legendary, capable of astonishing purity of tone, without even the remotest whisp of vibrato; from lesser throats, the result would emerge dull and emotionless, whereas from Sarah Blackwood, i would argue, comes one of pop music’s most expressive voices, one that’s enhanced by the gentle edge lent by her delicious northern accent. Anyway, enough of the hero-worship.

It’s a wise choice of cover song; indeed, with its rather lovely poignant shifts of harmony it could almost have been written by Dubstar themselves. It’s a nice song too, and while Dubstar haven’t made significant alterations to its basic elements, it feels more solid and substantial in their hands, carrying a bit more weight than the original. It lacks the lyrical bite of Dubstar’s own music (which was always made more menacing by the faux-innocence of Blackwood’s voice—oops, there i go again), but does echo their simplicity; this is most notable in the melody, which doesn’t really do a great deal, for the most part shifting up and down a perfect fifth with occasional excursions right and left, but which sits perfectly above everything else. And by the end of the song, as Blackwood repeats “I’m in love… I’m in love…” round and round, we really could be back in the late 1990s.

A few hours before the compilation went live, Andrew Collins interviewed Sarah Blackwood on BBC 6Music. It’s a really nice little discussion, taking in Blackwood’s activities with Client (about whom, regular 5:4 readers will know i’ve been less impressed), a little of the history behind Dubstar, as well as a few guarded remarks about a possible forthcoming Dubstar album. The interview also includes the song; below is a recording of the relevant section of the programme, including both the interview and the song.

While “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” doesn’t demonstrate the best of Dubstar, it is unmistakably, authentic Dubstar—there’s no sense of the stylistic disorientation that accompanied Portishead’s Third, which following a similar decade-long hiatus—and if there’s more to come (at present, i suspect it’s best not to get one’s hopes up), i’ve no doubt that it’ll be well worth waiting for.

Andrew Collins – Sarah Blackwood interview

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