I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Tim Saul for the Dummy book. Saul is a long-time collaborator of Portishead producer Geoff Barrow (with whom he co-produced 2003's outstanding McKay) and he was involved in pre-production sessions for Dummy. His insights into the production of that album were invaluable.
Saul is also, with rapper Mau, half of Earthling, whose 1995 Radar remains representative of the best of the downtempo genre before if became stylistically flattened by its own commercial viability. Seven years after the release of their second album, their third -- Insomniac's Ball -- is out and available via Bandcamp. My review is up on PopMatters this morning:
There are some stunning moments of beatcraft. The opening of “Bobby X” is as meticulous a piece of loop production as you might hear this side of hip-hop’s Golden Age. It opens with a shuddering, withdrawing, pugnacious sample: a back-drawn snare like a rasp of drawn breath, piano from the bottom and top of the register clasping the song in iron gloves. Shards of sound seem to slide past one another, assembling a beat out of near-collisions. Yet somehow Mau’s boastful lyrics—“gonna let the whole world know I’m here”—are tempered by his thrillingly idiosyncratic delivery. They are less a compilation of braggadocio and instead—“so don’t ask me about philosophies of Archimedes, my education was beat-street and graffiti”—an eminently quotable coalition of nimble charm and cheeky grace.
This was always the magic in Saul and Mau’s collaboration. Much like Barrow and Beth Gibbons in Portishead, or Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, the finest moments in downtempo were not the smooth congregation of like minds, but a rich and intoxicating marriage of contrasts.
Be sure to check out at least "Bobby X" and the gorgeous "Fly Away".