jellyI discovered electronic music duo Lemon Jelly a few years ago when I was looking for instrumental music to play for – and hopefully soothe – my young son. This is chill-out or “lounge” music, I suppose, but I think of it more as a mix between easy listening or “light” music, club electronic and classical minimalist music. It’s very melodic and accessible, but relies heavily on varied repetition and the use of intriguing samples, to the extent that it’s sometimes hard to pick out what is a sample and what is new. Tiny details in the music become very significant in its organization. That sounds to me like minimalist music in the classical world. The primary difference would be the use of drum machines and studio techniques more familiar from recorded (rather than live) music, but regular pulse is central to minimalism, so that’s not a huge step to take.

The dreamy, fairy-tale sound of “His Majesty, King Raam”, (originally from The Yellow EP, 1999, which samples Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road”) was the first to catch my attention – and my son loved it. It uses the first two bars of Mancini’s film music from 1967, really just a light piano texture, as the basis for the whole track. I then bought the CD LemonJelly.KY (2002) that collects the music from their first three EPs together. All the tracks are excellent.

Originally released on the EP, The Bath, “A Tune for Jack” is the one I’ve picked out for this post. It starts out with sea elephant sounds and the commentary from a 1960s BBC children’s programme (is that Michael Rodd from Tomorrow’s World?). Then, after an extended introduction, nearly two minutes long, comes the main piano theme and full-on rhythm section, including a deep and fluid bass line – its sheer exuberance is hard to resist. Underneath, the sweeping string sounds are obviously sampled.

But what about the piano itself? Despite its length and apparent unity, a closer listen suggests it’s also been put together from sampled fragments, and in the third of the three short phrases that make up the theme there’s a deliberate stutter in the rhythm that draws our attention to this. This is repeated every time the phrase re-occurs, to emphasize the artificiality. Further detective work reveals that the piano sample comes from the Johnny Pearson/Sounds Orchestral arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”, dating from the late 1960s. It’s easy to be cynical about this kind of easy listening “elevator” music, where the piano-led melody line, slow and built up with huge echo, often sounds as if it’s being played by just one finger. (Yet another style of arrangement used by Mancini in his not universally acclaimed “A Warm Shade of Ivory” LP of 1969). But here I think it’s being used affectionately as well as ironically. Most Lemon Jelly tracks have this kind of multi-layered structure (and there’s plenty more to dig into – what are those baby sounds later on, and who, or perhaps what, is Jack?). But they also succeed on their own terms as vibrant, funny, and often beautiful music. The follow up CD to LemonJelly.KY, called Lost Horizons, is also highly recommended.