Between Darkness and Wonder (Koch)

Can a lasting relationship begin with a lie? If said relationship is between the brilliant new Lamb album and you, dear listener, the answer is yes. The deceit lurks within the album's opener, "Darkness," and comes from the lips of powerhouse vocalist Louise Rhodes: "I couldn't see darkness until now/Only light." But anyone who's listened to Lamb over the past seven years knows this just isn't true. The shadowy complexity of Lamb's work makes it one of the few trip-hop groups worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Portishead. Lamb has seen darkness -- again and again -- and has used it to great effect.

The Mancunian duo (Rhodes and talented producer Andy Barlow) subvert expectations by pairing brooding lyrics with drum & bass breakbeats and by combining happy, hopeful verse with dark trip-hop. These songs are not the silly drug paeans of the Sneaker Pimps, nor are they the too-slight warbles of Everything But the Girl; rather, they are torch songs that exude heat and sex, dark aural landscapes that set spines to shivering. A standout track, "Till the Clouds Clear," opens with whimsically, almost dopily, plucked strings, but the folksy instrumentation serves as a backdrop for this: "The devil's got your tongue/...It's gonna burn, it's gonna burn/You're gonna take the whole world with you when you go."

Each Lamb album -- from the self-titled debut that made acid-house innovator A Guy Called Gerald come knocking, to the critically lauded Fear of Fours, to 2001's What Sound (with Me'Shell NdegéOcello on bass), to this, the newest release -- plays like a journey from despair to revelation. So forgive Rhodes and Barlow this one lie. They have seen darkness before, it's true -- but light, too. Even with lyrics as simple as those on the jungle-electronica romp "Sun" ("You are the sun/It's where you're from/And where I'm going to") comes the profound sense of an emergence from the dark, an offer of redemption -- at least for now.

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