Much of the pre-release chatter around Jamie Smith's debut album centered on "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)," an addictive, upbeat track with bubbly guest verses from Young Thug and a chorus from the dancehall singer Popcaan. It's a bouncy summertime song that's probably the best thing The xx member has released in his short solo career. But as exciting as it made In Colour out to be, it seems to have been a fluke: most of the record settles into the dance music-lite that Smith has been producing since "Far Nearer."
As songs like "All Under One Roof Raving" make clear, Smith is obsessed with early UK dance music, and a good chunk of In Colour looks at rave history through a revisionist and overly sentimental lens. Judging from "Gosh" and "Hold Tight" (both loaded with clichéd MC chatter), you'd think hardcore and jungle never had any grit, soul or edge. Smith assembles his tracks like he's using a checklist, putting familiar elements together without seeming to understand what makes them work. His rave tributes are the equivalent of a Hallmark greeting card blaring out tinny versions of classic rock songs, and that's not even considering goofy moments like "The Rest Is Noise," or the steel drum daydream "Obvs," which borders on self-parody.
Smith sounds more comfortable when he's working with others. In addition to Young Thug and Popcaan, his bandmates from The xx make welcome appearances. Oliver Sim's voice and guitar turn "Stranger In A Room" into an xx song with a sequencer, which is no bad thing. On "SeeSaw," Romy Madley-Croft recounts a story of losing her lover to her best friend over a bubble bath of electronics. "SeeSaw" is a powerful union of producer and vocalist: Madley-Croft tells her tale through brief flashes of memory that pair well with the impressionistic backdrop Smith has cooked up. The result reminds us that when Smith isn't doing the maudlin rave thing, he's part of one of modern rock's most singular acts.
Madley-Croft reappears for In Colour's other big moment, "Loud Places," which figures the club as the kind of lonely space The xx usually inhabit. Like "SeeSaw," it's among Madley-Croft's more touching performances, until Smith piles on a loud and overpowering Idris Muhammad sample for the chorus. It's an interesting move: the barnstorming vocals turn the song's contrast of loud and quiet places into a literal dichotomy, yet it chokes the subtlety out of his partner's performance. What ruins "Loud Places" is a conundrum that dogs Smith's solo work in general. His approach to dance music might be more romantic and intimate than his peers', but those qualities don't guarantee subtlety or nuance. The result is music that's too soft to hit home and too hammy to feel sincere.
What we're left with is an uneven album that's rarely as profound or as meaningful as it tries to be. In Colour's core thread of raver nostalgia simply dissolves on contact. If he had anything enlightening or unique to add to his misty-eyed tributes, it'd be different, but he seems content to slip out a stream of clichés and call it a day. I've always viewed Smith as an artist who, instead of adding to the dialogue, repackages what's already been said in a simpler way. In Colour hasn't changed my mind about that.
02. Sleep Sound
03. SeeSaw feat. Romy
05. Just Saying
06. Stranger In A Room feat. Oliver Sim
07. Hold Tight
08. Loud Places feat. Romy
09. I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) feat. Young Thug & Popcaan
10. The Rest Is Noise