When UNKLE burst on the scene in the 1990s combining the best of electronica, hip-hop and Brit-pop sensibilities, they seemed to be setting themselves up as major players in the musical vanguard. The 21st century hasn’t been so kind to them, with the departure of DJ Shadow setting off a long decline which reaches a new low on End Titles…Stories For Film. Apparently on End Titles they were “inspired by the moving image”, which doesn’t really mean much in terms of the music, but perhaps it explains the unnecessary DVD-like packaging. The truth is End Titles isn’t that different from last year’s under-whelming War Stories, except that it’s even less likable. The only inspired song is “Chemical” which is just the War Stories’ instrumental “Chemistry” with Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age adding vocals. Elsewhere, Homme is sorely missed, with ambient non-sequiturs, tepid electronica and Gavin Clark’s hacky vocals dominating most the album. In perhaps the strangest moment in the UNKLE discography, director Abel Ferrara sings “Open Up Your Eyes”, which he also wrote. He’s not much of a singer, which is perfect since End Titles isn’t much of an album. Even Black Mountain, who show up on “Clouds”, can’t breathe any life into this bloodless music.
UNKLE’s 1998 debut, Psyence Fiction, was an unfairly maligned album that was the victim of too much pre-release hype. Although its bold mix of hip hop, electronica and Brit-pop left many people confused, it was a fitting soundtrack for the death of Brit-pop. Where there once were anthems about “Girl and Boys” and “Cigarette and Alcohol”, UNKLE collaborators DJ Shadow and James Lavelle gave you songs about “Bloodstains” and “Lonely Souls”, with guest vocals from A-listers Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Mike. D, and Kool G. Rap, among others. War Stories is their third album, with Richard File subbing in for the long-departed DJ Shadow, and musical input from stoner-rock guru Chris Goss (QOTSA, Maters of Reality). Unfortunately, this version of UNKLE removes all traces of hip-hop from their sound and replaces it with lame techno beats and repetitive rock grooves that lack depth and imagination. As for the guest vocalists, songs with Massive Attack’s 3D (Alex, I’ll take “things that were better in 1998”, for $200) and Autolux come and go without raising any eyebrows, but let’s just say that the others, like Ian Astbury and Gavin Clark (who?), are hardly on the same level as Thom Yorke and Richard Ashcroft. James Lavelle steps out from behind the boards to take a few ill-advised turns on the mic, which feels like a desperate move since he sang on any prior UNKLE albums. It’s not a total loss though, with both Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and British rockers The Duke Spirit turning in good performances and making the best of a bad situation. With only two good-not-great songs War Stories is a letdown.