Now feels like as good of a time as any to check in with UNKLE. James Lavelle has stuck with the project longer than anyone thought he would, in particular after all the personnel changes that have occurred over the years. From its humble beginnings with DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy to the supreme reign of Richard File, those guys each contributed their own unique angles on UNKLE’s typically dark electronic landscapes. With File jumping ship after 2007’s “War Stories”, early reports speculated that Lavelle was going to turn in his dance card, but Pablo Clements would step into File’s shoes a short time later and keep everything going strong. Stronger than ever before it turns out, because in the past 5 years there’s been twice as much material from Lavelle than there was in the previous 10 years. 2008’s “End Titles…Stories for Film” was a slightly different UNKLE record, reliant on atmosphere and soundtrack-like pieces (as the title suggests) rather than the typical guest stars. Last year’s “Where Did the Night Fall” was a return to more standard fare, bringing in another array of vocalists that ranged from The Black Angels to Katrina Ford and Mark Lanegan. Now nearly a full year later, UNKLE is putting out a deluxe edition of that album, packaged with some extra material like instrumentals and new songs. For those that already own the record and don’t want to buy it again in a more expensive form, the “Only the Lonely” EP is one solution to get most of those extras separately. And though they are intended as companion pieces, one need not own or have heard the last album to appreciate the EP. In fact, it might just be better that way.
It’s natural to think that maybe the whole point of the “Only the Lonely” EP is to squeeze a little more blood from the same sessions that yielded “Where Did the Night Fall”. That’s something UNKLE could very well have done, and if you get the new deluxe edition of the record there’s plenty of outtakes and b-sides to whet your whistle should you be a completist. This EP though is far better than a simple set of tracks that couldn’t find a place elsewhere. You don’t get Nick Cave to provide a guest vocal and NOT use him, so it’s more than reasonable to assume that most if not all of the five tracks on this EP have been recorded in the last year. Cave’s track “Money and Run” commences the brooding immediately, as as tradition for any UNKLE release. One gets the impression that Lavelle has not seen actual sunshine in a long time. Then again, the same could be said for Cave, and the two would seem to make for an inspired pairing. It works out pretty much as planned, as Cave gives the tale of criminal activity and evildoers all the gusto it requires, matched by an instrumental soundscape of scuffed up guitars and tired drums. Great though it may be, it doesn’t quite stand up to a lot of Cave’s other work with Grinderman and the Bad Seeds and such. Yet it champions over virtually every other track on the EP and holds a place somewhere around UNKLE’s 10 best tracks to date. Liela Moss of The Duke Spirit throws her vocal chords behind “The Dog Is Black” next, and the gothic atmosphere blends supremely well with her sultry voice. Two tracks in and very little to complain about, save for some weak lyrics that only become a problem if you focus on them with the utmost intention of dissection.
One of UNKLE’s biggest faults has always been trying to pack too much into a singular record, and as a result completely sandbagging the entire thing by being too weighty for too long. A shorter EP then seems like a great way to study if Lavelle and company can fare any better by moving briskly. The centerpiece of the “Only the Lonely” EP is the instrumental title track, and after two strong opening cuts this is where weakness begins to show its face. Not much happens in the track, which is exactly what you want to avoid on a track without vocals and lyrics. Thankfully the last two cuts redeem that soggy midsection with solid performances from Gavin Clark (“Wash the Love Away”) and Sleepy Sun’s Rachel Fannan (“Sunday Song”). Unlike the Cave and Moss songs though, these backloaded tracks deserve to be placed exactly where they are, trailing everything else courtesy of their sheer normalcy. If you’ve listened to enough UNKLE then you’re more or less aware of their standard operating procedure, of which these last two songs hold to hard and fast. The positive is that normal for UNKLE is almost always better than you expect, so those songs balance things out relatively well. The issue is that on an EP where you only have 5 songs, the hope is that every one of them is exceptional. For the “Only the Lonely” EP, that’s just a slight bit more than half true. Still, in this bite-sized chunk of music, a lot of past pitfalls have been avoided, leaving you with the tease that just maybe Lavelle and his wealth of co-conspirators can actually escape from their nearly forgotten hole if they buckle down and focus their energies just a little bit more. Or maybe Lavelle can just convince Thom Yorke to come back for another guest vocal.