Actress Nimbly Balances Many Ideas, Moods and Collaborators on 'Karma & Desire'

Actress Nimbly Balances Many Ideas, Moods and Collaborators on 'Karma & Desire'
There was reason to worry when Darren Cunningham (a.k.a Actress) released 88, his 48-minute mixtape, this past July. Consisting of a fluid jumble of warbling, drifting instrumentals broken into 22 pieces, the only beacon of hope came from the accompanying PDF that promised more new music from before year's end. The album in question, Karma & Desire, shows that the Wolverhampton musician isn't actually bereft of ideas after all.

Over 17 tracks and 68 minutes, Actress runs the creative gamut, allowing a bevy of sounds, moods, themes and collaborations to help shape his sixth proper album. Not only does Cunningham use excellent guest vocalists across the LP — including folk/pop singer-songwriter Zsela, LA trance producer (and occasional John Frusciante collaborator) Aura T-09 and London electronic soul musician Sampha — he makes great use of their contrasting styles, often grouping artists together to create multiple suites across the album.

Darren adds interstitials to bridge the more structured tracks, but these straightforward ambient instrumentals still manage to exude personality and mood, as the album sets the tone with an alien pair of breathy speak-sing tracks featuring Zsela ("Angels Pharmacy" and "Remembrance"), while the hazy meditation of "Glided Squares" almost works as an intro to the eight-minute haunted piano of the Sampha-assisted "Many Seas, Many Rivers."

Despite the thumping four-on-the-floor beats that mostly take over the bottom third of the LP, including the dancefloor-lite "Loveless" and "Turin" (both featuring Aura T-09) and the wiggly "Loose" (featuring Christel Well), Karma & Desire never comes close to being a dance record — it's much too opaque and fragile and weird for that. Instead, listeners are left with a longform thinkpiece that's expertly conceived, well executed and brilliantly sequenced. (Ninja Tune)