The alliance between rock and electronica is typically as shaky as Paris Hilton's fusion of wealth and manners. The UK three-piece South manages to beat the odds, though, as the group's arrangements are organic, not the result of a stylistic shotgun wedding. It isn't a matter of bringing the two into equal balance so much as creating an environment where they co-exist and complement each other.
On their second album, "With the Tides," South takes a step away from the murky electronic atmospheres of their debut "From Here On In." The result is less like Stone Roses and more akin to the lavish post-genre sounds of The Delgados or The Flaming Lips. Still elegantly futuristic, the band is now concentrating more on hooks and melodies, as well as delivering them with greater concision.
"I think we consciously decided to write some singles that were under six minutes," chuckles singer/guitarist Jamie McDonald from a rest stop south of San Francisco. "We wanted an album that maybe wasn't so sprawling and if anything, at worst, meandering. ["From Here On In"] was maybe a little much for people to take, looking back now. We want to contrast with that -- be a little closer, a little more direct and, hopefully, accessible to a wider group of people."
McDonald formed South with Joel Cadbury and Brett Shaw, fellow working-class lads and schoolmates also in their early teens. By sixteen they were already playing gigs and had bought studio time. "We were totally aware that we wanted to record stuff," says McDonald.
The school was supportive and allowed them to practice on campus.
"We had a few incidents with the other kids, we'd play sometimes and we'd get the rude kids in the school banging on the door and shit," says McDonald. "One time they wouldn't leave us alone, so we opened the door and said, 'What the fuck do you want?' They were like, 'What are you doing? Play us a song.' So we played a song for about ten of these kids. They really enjoyed it and left us alone after that."
Like many artists whose careers started far more auspiciously, South bought a four-track and started recording and mixing songs. They polished these demos to a gleam, and they sparkled indeed, so much so that James Lavelle (of Mo' Wax records and U.N.K.L.E. fame) signed them to his pioneering breakbeat label, releasing the demos and then producing the debut.
While still retaining some of the electronic textures and beats of the first album, "With the Tides" is a far more rocking -- and at times psychedelic -- affair, as on the swirling album-closer, "Threadbare," which buckles and churns atop chugging guitars.
"I think our diet or intake of rock music has increased in the last few years," admits McDonald. "It's more Led Zeppelin. We've been DJing in London and there's nothing like dropping in a bit of AC/DC or Van Halen or something like that. So it has probably crept into our sound."
Inveterate tinkerers, the band spent untold hours in the studio recording the first album, racking up large studio bills.
"No one was really saying 'no' to us at the time," recalls McDonald. "The parent company, Beggars Banquet, weren't very cool with us after that. But since James Lavelle was in the producer's seat we could do whatever we wanted really."
While "Tides" won't be released on Mo' Wax (finding, instead, a home on progressive trance label Kinetic), South did use money from the first album to build their own studio, where they worked just as industriously, if a bit more economically, on the new one. Many songs, such as the shimmering "Loosen Your Hold," with its gothic synthetic strings against bubbling harp and finger-plucked banjo, were recorded, then stripped bare, deconstructed and taken in different directions.
"We really tried to explore the kind of possibilities. It was fun and sometimes you go back to what you had before, but sometimes you end up with something that you never thought you could've got," says McDonald. "'Loosen Your Hold' is one. Now you have kind of a three-minute pop gem, but it used to be quite spooky and epic. It just had the chorus and the rest came from somewhere else and we added the harp. The banjo line came right at the end -- it was from a riff that we kind of had, and the banjo sounded quite good on top of that."
South's not a broad-limbed genre-hopper like Scotland's Beta Band or Wales' Super Furry Animals, but in their own way they forge expansive musical vistas that make most American indie rock sound as two-dimensional as a picture postcard. Is it something in the water over there? Or here?