It starts with the words “Leave space…for the bass”. In comes that bass, followed by an aciieeeeeed bassline filched from Yazz’s classic 1988 house-pop banger ‘The Only Way is Up’. Then some 70s disco ‘pew pew’ laser sounds, and a bit of funky 80s New Order guitar. “Just slight variations on the same theme” sings David Best knowingly, as this most criminally underrated of bands tweak that successful formula for the 9th time and begin yet another stupendously good album.
I could fill pages rambling on about how F&M’s continuing obscurity is the biggest musical injustice since the commercial failure of The Go-Betweens or the baffling popularity of Ed Sheeran, but seriously people, why are you listening to pale imitations like Hot Chip or LCD Soundsystem when you could be listening to this lot? They won’t tell you how great they are – they even managed to sneak out two albums in the five years between 2017 career high F&M and this new masterpiece without me, one of their biggest cheerleaders, even noticing – but I certainly bloody will.
So the accurately named Slight Variations does what all their best albums do – not reinvent the wheel, just maybe polish the rim a bit, or clip a playing card to the spokes with a clothes peg, to create something fresh but familiar. So all the usual elements of a great Fujiya & Miyagi album are in place. The opener & title track is typically self-referential and takes their trademark electro-funk to sublime new levels of brilliance. ‘Non-Essential Worker’ – self-deprecation surely – is one of their classic Krautrock homages. Closer ‘Feeling the Effects’ is a gorgeously lush, melancholic synthpop/deep house meditation on still trying to ‘ave it large when you’re getting old and, wonderfully, sounds just like The Beloved at a time when absolutely noone sounds, or even wants to sound, like The Beloved.
And here and there are those little elements that see the band dipping a foot – never more than a foot – in different waters, pushing their envelope just a little. ‘Sweat’ is minimalistic 80s funk, Best exhorting us to “DANCE! To the very last drop of sweat”, an unusual line for a band so permanently nonchalant I’d always assumed that, like Prince Andrew, they were incapable of sweating (and incidentally, if there’s a better opening line in 2022 than “If you play with matches the chance of getting burned is statistically higher than…if you don’t” then I can’t wait to hear it). The downbeat ‘FAQ’ fuses downbeat electronica with dub reggae as effortlessly and charmingly as The Radio Dept did on their Clinging to a Scheme album. Instrumental ‘Oops’ sounds like a glitchier Kraftwerk. All subtle changes – slight variations on the same theme of course – that are far from being radical reinventions but will bring a smile to the faces of the cognoscenti.
Every time these reluctant geniuses release a new album, I find myself salivating and hailing it as their best album yet; this time I may actually be right.