Paul Dickow has reinvented himself. His newest release as Strategy is a huge surprise and an even bigger statement. It comes out left field on the fledgling Peak Oil label four years after the last Strategy full-length. A series of 12” records released in the last year by Under the Spire, Endless Flight, and 100% Silk are its closest brethren, but none of them sound anything like this. Paul’s rhythms are bolder and his melodies sharper this time around. Lyrics are featured prominently throughout and the atmospherics that once defined his sound have been toned down in favor of tighter instrumental performances and punchier songs. Coming along with the new sound is a gaggle of new collaborators, including Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard), members of the Evolutionary Jass Band, and Scott Ryser of Units.
“Sugar Drop” is the first song on the first new Strategy album in four years. As far as I can tell, it signals the death of the old Strategy and the start of something new. It begins with a familiar but hollowed out sample from “I Have to Do This Thing,” then quickly cuts away to a stomping rhythm and Paul singing “I’ve got a sweet tooth.” But, the vocal bit isn’t a sample. It isn’t repeated or blended into a haze of effects. Instead, Dickow continues with verses and a refrain, a keyboard solo, and a band-oriented sound that gives equal space to all the instruments. “Objects of Desire” continues down the same path, with strong, funky rhythms, vocals pushed to the fore, and a brighter overall sound that favors instrumental separation to fuzzy atmospherics. Had I not recognized the opening sample as a Strategy sample, I might have checked to see if the right album was playing.
Dickow’s writing is also more concise this time around. Side A gives us four songs in just 17 minutes, only one without vocals. That terseness lends the first side lots of momentum, which culminates in the manic pulse of “Baby Fever.” Horns, fluttering synthesizers, and a thumping rhythm section all dance together before boiling over into a sax solo that absolutely explodes from the horn. The lyrics in this song’s first half sound a bit mismatched to me, but by the time the sax is done wailing, the vocals have ceased to matter.
It’s a barn-burning side-ender that segues naturally into side B’s first song, “Friends and Machines,” which utilizes the same horn and rhythm combo found at the end of “Baby Fever.” This time around, the combo anchors an instrumental jam that’s lead by a staccato guitar part and a bubbling assortment of hand drums. Cooler sounds and a more relaxed vibe permeate this song—and the whole second side—but cooler does not mean duller. Dickow continuously adds layers and new elements to this song, building tension and then releasing it through his use of texture and color.
The album ends with “Saturn’s Day” and “Dilemmas,” two slow-burning numbers that effectively open the parachute and bring the album slowly back to the ground. Both remind me of Paul’s work with Nudge and Fontanelle, partly because they are even more band-oriented than the songs on the first side. There’s even a guitar solo on “Saturn’s Day.” Heady and druggy sounding, they’re more soaked in reverb and echo, too, and closer to Paul’s past efforts as Strategy. Maybe that’s an indication that he’s erasing the boundaries between his various projects and drawing them all together, becoming less encumbered in the process. Dickow’s writing may have become more concise and structured over the last four years, but somehow Strategy sounds looser and better than ever.