Review Summary: What goes up must come down.
Both in terms of personal success and chart positioning, 2008's Flying Colours
was a crowning achievement for the careers of Tarik Ejjamai, Jonathan Notley and Max McKinnon –better known collectively as Bliss N Eso. The trio had shown great potential with their previous records, but it was with Colours
that they made good on the promise shown. Not since Hilltop Hoods' The Calling
in 2003 had such a world-class hip-hop record been a proudly Australian product. With this taken into consideration, you could forgive the group for being unsure of the direction to take leading up to their fourth studio album, Running on Air
. That said, it's one thing for uncertainty in the build-up to following a record like Colours
, but it's another thing entirely for that uncertainty to carry on throughout the recording and subsequent release.
It's not the lack of ideas that are present and accounted for on the record, but more the execution – or lack thereof - that lets it down. Truly great tracks never last a streak longer than two tracks, and the album’s flow of songs strictly disallows a clean break between the mostly-lacklustre “party” tracks and their moments of shining introspection. For every witty, well-paced flow, there's some annoyingly catchy larrikinism like “My grandma told me/Never ever ever take no shit
” to disassemble an otherwise fine creation. Major international guests are featured, such as Wu Tang member RZA and Xzibit; yet the former's track isn't nearly is good as it could have been given the talents on hand and the latter wastes his spot on self-congratulating bravado with dumb lyrics like “Hangin’ in Sin City/Aussie girls with huge titties/I am not kidding.” Hey yo, dawg, we heard you like titties…
Wasted potential aside, there’s also the issue of just how little effort comes across in the majority of tracks. From “This is For You” from 2004’s Flowers in the Pavement
to “Bullet and a Target” from Flying Colours
, it’s easy to note that the best BnE tracks are those with a fire in their figurative bellies, with unrelenting vitriol and passion abound. That kind of magic is all but a seldom-seen rarity here, with too many songs dealing with being ready to do it (“C’mon! C’mon! C’mon!/Let’s go!”,) and not nearly enough dealing with actually doing whatever it was in the first place.
Of course, the trio are too smart and too experienced to let the entire record lapse into unforgettable fodder, and there are a slew of tracks on Running that stand out to the point where you’re certain there’s hope for them yet. “Late One Night” sees some of the album’s most inventive and energetic lyrical flows atop what is unquestionably the best beat of the entire album. It also doubles as the most unexpected – Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s countrified blues of “Rattlin’ Bones” is chopped up and scattered amongst a thudding shuffle of glockenspiel, synthesized handclaps and a fuzzed-out string sample.
“Reflections” interpolates the main structure of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” and turns what could have been a recipe for disaster into one of the finest works of the group’s discography, complete with bleak lyrical confessionals that make this arguably the darkest song on the whole album. Needless to say, it benefits from this type of raw-nerve honesty. The M-Phazes-produced “Riding Through The City” is also a very fitting and dynamic opener, which sees some of the group’s quintessentially Australian humour shine through in zingers like “I’m more street than the Paddle Pop lion” and “mad hungry, like I’m Nudge from Hey Dad!” The double-time switch-up in the beat’s verses, smooth bass line, catchy sampled chorus and a sneaky Chuck Berry reference also make this track one of the shining hopes of Running on Air
. Phazes also ensures lightning strikes later in the track-listing with the velvety down-tempo groove of “Children of the Night.” Bliss’ vibrant imagery and Eso’s bouncing-off-the-walls vitality work to their strongest points here in particular – and it’s disheartening to think that it’s in the minority here.
Running on Air
aims sky high but has unfortunately landed the group somewhere in the middle ground. In terms of its standing amongst the other records in the band’s body of work, it falls notably short of Colours
, a highlight or two ahead of Flowers
and somewhere around the same mark as 2006’s Day of the Dog
. The only major difference between then and now is that the BnE crew have acquired significantly more know-how and songwriting experience in that time, and really should have known better than to regress. At least, in stepping down from what was questionably an insurmountable height, they have a better understanding of how they got there in the first place. Next time will be different.