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Like many great bands before them, Dubstar started off as a mere idea; in this instance, the notion of a two-piece band (initially called The Joans) was shared between two self-motivated young men in 1992: Chris Wilkie (guitar, programming) and Steve Hillier (keyboards). The British pair underwent their requisite growing pains before Sarah Blackwood (vocals) crossed paths with the duo in that classically random, rock & roll happenstance fashion—her then-boyfriend accidentally left her demo tape at Hillier’s residence. An invitation to join the duo followed shortly thereafter and the line-up expanded to a trio.
Wilkie, Hillier and Blackwood began the industry rounds and later intersected with Graeme Robinson, producer and eventual manager of the threesome. Robinson assisted Wilkie, Hillier and Blackwood rechristening themselves as Dubstar. Soon enough, Dubstar signed to the enterprising English independent label Food Records in 1994, which gave the band room to roam in the increasingly fertile popular music epoch of the mid-1990s.
Disgraceful, Dubstar’s impressive first album, emerged in the second half of 1995 to rave reviews. The batch of tunes had its production divided between Robinson and the established talents of Stephen Hague. Dubstar’s mix of alternative, electronic and dance pop was sonically spot on for the decade, but it was Blackwood’s modish chanteuse vocalizing that mesmerized fans and critics alike. On their second LP Goodbye (1997), Dubstar set their own precedent in uncannily flirting with the mainstream and indie music realms.
Make It Better (2000), Dubstar’s powerful third record, was to take the group to deserved “next level” status, though behind the scenes the collaborative dynamic between Wilkie, Hillier and Blackwood was breaking down. Not long after the election of “The Self Same Thing” as its supercharged second single, the parent effort—and the band itself—were soon shuttered. The disappointment of what could have been cast a pall over Dubstar’s brief, but impactful legacy. Minor whispers of reunions did surface as the last decade rolled onward, but nothing substantial ever materialized.
It has only been in the last three years that Wilkie and Blackwood (sans Hillier) made a concerted move to revive Dubstar. And as if by magic, a fourth record—One—has now manifested on the boutique imprint Northern Writes to stun loyal fans, surprise cynical critics and woo the uninitiated.
Drafting Martin “Youth” Glover, an industry veteran and former founding member (and bassist) of Killing Joke, was a deliberate move on Wilkie and Blackwood’s part to bring about their vision of One appropriately. Returning to the sonic pulse of the kinetic guitar-pop that beat on a considerable portion of the antecedent Make It Better, One makes it seem as if 18 years has never passed between Dubstar’s third and fourth projects.
With just a polite nudge of encouragement, Youth helps Dubstar revise their musical make-up with an organic blend of drums, guitars, percussion, and other demure instrumentation and digital effects. But, this impeccable admix doesn’t diminish Dubstar’s trademark atmospheric lushness, as One’s opener “Love Comes Late” evinces. As the album advances along its track, audiences will notice the fluid aesthetic traces of Italo-western (“Torched”), straight-ahead AOR balladry (“Please Stop Leaving Me Alone”) and northern soul (“I Hold Your Heart”) that Blackwood wraps her voice around beautifully; her instrument has not aged whatsoever.
And while there is a subtle electro-pop underpinning to the entire album, Dubstar still tips their hat to their electronic roots with an elegant one-two punch of “You Were Never in Love” and “Locked Inside.” Rightfully serviced as a single from One, the former entry is as majestic as their evergreen “Stars” was in Dubstar’s prime. Likely sewn in for kicks, the latter cut makes use of a recognizable riff from the Tear for Fears staple “Shout” that the keen audiophile will swiftly pick up on.
Songwriting wise, One glamorously recasts various “slice of life” perspectives into sweeping song novellas for listeners to wander within. Blackwood often positions herself inside of these compositions in first person, but her semi-chilled chanteuse approach provides a mystique and an observational distance to each song present. Setting aside the nighttime sprawl of “Mantra”—conceived lyrically between Wilkie, Blackwood and Youth—the mass of One is owed to Wilkie and Blackwood who have clearly grown as writers and show no sign of weakness despite Hillier’s absence.
No one expected Dubstar to roar back onto the pop scene with such an accomplished recording, but with One they did just that. Once again, the sky is truly the limit for Wilkie and Blackwood, and if they continue to write and record material as crisp and vivid as this effort, there’s no telling where this reinvigorated pair could journey to next.
Notable Tracks: “Locked Inside” | “Love Comes Late” | “Torched” | “You Were Never in Love”