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Spokes (Warp)

Since their start in the late '80s as two-thirds of the influential electronic outfit Black Dog, Plaid's Andy Turner and Ed Handley have been pegged as thinking man's artists. Unfortunately, they've also fallen victim to some lazy terminology -- like IDM, meant to describe an amorphous genre called "intelligent dance music," which is really just techno music appropriate for both the home and the club.

Their rare but always great experimentation with vocals has long made the duo a favorite of Björk, who appeared on their 1998 album Not for Threes. But on Spokes, they tease the listener with only one vocal cut, the icy opener "Even Spring." It's a fascinating song that morphs Luca Santucci's utterances into different tones and, seemingly, different genders.

By the end, Spokes's tonal scheme grows as familiar as an old shoe, but the two musicians keep the proceedings lively throughout with their rhythmic diversity. They create a continuum that threads from the light-stepping drum & bass pace of "Crumax Rins" to the loping hip-hop beats that surface between thick layers of Eastern-influenced strings in "B Born Droid." They have taken a lot of aggression out of their compositions, but not at the expense of punchy, immersive sounds that can still make an impression on a dance floor, resulting in their most easygoing and worthwhile album.

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