RatherBeWhen I first heard this song, in passing on the radio, I immediately honed in on the bubbly synth accompaniment as its most interesting element. It was a while before I heard enough of the complete song to notice that this material is also used as the introduction, played by a string quartet – and played convincingly. This isn’t a typical pop string arrangement. It makes full use of the independent voices and is also written idiomatically for the instruments, clearly by someone who knows what a string quartet can do. And it converts surprisingly well to the video game sounding electronic bleeps that alternate with strings throughout the song to play this music. (Note: the sheet music suggests it’s a trio rather than a quartet – it sounds fuller to me on the recording).

Researching into the song, I found that the band Clean Bandit was formed out of a real classical string quartet from Cambridge, the Chatto Quartet (named after cellist and band member Grace Chatto). This sounds exciting. I can only think of a handful of pop songs that make the most of a string quartet – “Yesterday”, of course springs to mind, but also “For You” by Judie Tzuke, on which the quartet arrangement was made by Paul Hart.

I’m still listening to Clean Bandit’s just-released album New Eyes to hear what else they can do with this combination. I have to say that, so far, I’m not entirely convinced. For instance, while “Mozart’s House” uses a chunk of Mozart’s String Quartet No 21 (a less obvious choice than most Mozart “samples”), it’s not really integrated into the rest of the song, and at one stage it sounds disconcertingly close to the Hooked on Classics approach – an unforgiving regular beat dominating the music and draining out all of its life. I do like the use of strings in an earlier Clean Bandit track called “UK Shanty” – not included on the new album – where folk music elements are more in evidence. And the videos I’ve seen are very inventive.

However, the album, and the song “Rather Be”, both indicate that the songs themselves are mostly generic, and that it’s the textures where the main interest lies. At its core, “Rather Be” is very simple as a straight song. It seems as if the songs are mostly written by outside writers and the band then adds the quartet textures – so we don’t get a lot of classical influence in the basic material itself, which is a shame. The band’s personality is also weakened by the use of different guest vocalists for every song. I also didn’t like the way that in the two dance remixes of “Rather Be” the strings seemed to be excluded altogether, indicating that for the hardcore clubbers that strings perhaps aren’t what they want to hear. Despite all that, it’s catchy enough to have made the charts, and I think its appeal comes from a combination of both the song itself and the unusual instrumental textures.

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