Back from the Printers

It's a "chunky monster" indeed. Packed to the seams with everything you need to know about mid-90s British downtempo music, massive basslines in golden age hip-hop, the relationship between funky jazz fusion and World War II bomber aircraft, and hundreds of other topics central to the proper functioning of your life.

I'm thrilled that it's publishing next to Aaron Cohen's book on Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace. That'll be a must-read.

Review of Earthling's Insomniac's Ball

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".

Jay Hodgson's Understanding Records

One of several great discoveries in the course of writing the 33 1/3 book on Portishead's Dummy was Jay Hodgson's wonderful Understanding Records: A Field Guide to Recording Practice. Hodgson has a talent for demystifying modern recorded sound, without ever detracting from the thrilling qualities of the music. As an example, as part of a discussion of distortion:

Reinforcement distortion does not necessarily require signal processing. Jimmy Miller, for instance, often reinforced Mick Jagger's vocals on the more energetic numbers he produced for the Rolling Stones by having Jagger or Keith Richards shout a second take, which he then buried deep in the mix. "Sympathy For The Devil," for instance, features a shouted double in the right channel throughout, though the track is faded so that it only sporadically breaches the threshold of audibility; "Street Fighting Man" offers another obvious example. "Let It Bleed" provides another example of shouted (manual) reinforcement distortion, though Miller buried the shouted reinforcement track so far back in the mix that it takes headphones and an entirely unhealthy playback volume to clearly hear. By the time Miller produced the shambolic Exile On Main Street, however, he had dispensed with such preciousness altogether: the producer regularly pumps Jagger's and Richards' shouted reinforcement tracks to an equal level with the lead-vocals on the album.

Hodgson is every bit as insightful and enthusiastic in person as he is in text. He was incredibly generous with his time and, over the course of a couple of conversations and email exchanges, helped me hear Dummy from the perspective of an audio professional, which was invaluable as I prepared to speak to Dummy and Portishead sound engineer Dave McDonald and mastering engineer Miles Showell. There are passages of my book -- particularly around the recording techniques for the album's vocals and its drum sounds -- that are informed by his insights and coloured by the questions that I only knew to ask after he had helped trained my ears.

While certainly intended for a professional audience, Understanding Records is a great read for the music enthusiast: Hodgson's writing is clear and alight with anecdotes and examples that illuminate music that you may only think you know. I'll never hear recorded music quite the same way again.

Introducing Portishead's Dummy, a 33 1/3 Book

Isolation. Desire. Narcotic. Memory. Shock. Intimacy. Imagination. Solitude. Alienation. Consolation. Truth. Loss. Siren. Lullaby. Nostalgia. Grief. Companion. Lust. Lubricant. Hallucinogen. Essence. Temptress. Perfection. Loneliness. Seduction. Vindication. Depression. Distance. Reconciliation.

portishead-dummy

Portishead's 1994 album Dummy reassembles itself with every listen and with each listener. It becomes, cumulatively and collectively, a sequence of perfect meditations on loneliness and solitude; it carries promises of the narcotizing power of love; it serenades the anonymous consolations of the night; it rhapsodizes the unmooring influence upon the soul of unrequited and obsessive desire.

Dummy is irresistibly intimate, stylistically eclectic. A mixture of influences drawn from hip-hop, rock, jazz, folk, soul, funk, blues, and elsewhere, the album is a sparsely woven tapestry of sounds striped from their origins -- shards of lyrics, samples, gestures, surfaces, textures. It is held together only by inertia and by the force of the memories, impressions, and perceptions it provokes in the listener -- only to fall away undone and unresolved into darkness.

An entry in Continuum's 33 1/3 series, Portishead's Dummy will be published in 2011.

I'm looking for stories about this music. What were you doing when you first heard it? How did it change your life? How has listening to it changed the way that you thought about what music could do?

We live in a world where music is infinitely distributable, ubiquitous in its presence, contextless in conception and reception. Music lives and dies in a place of continuous reinterpretation by its listeners.

What does Dummy mean to you?

McKay

In preparation for my upcoming contribution to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, I’ve been rereading everything I’ve read—and written—related to the mid-90s British downtempo scene.

I came across an unpublished piece I wrote in 2004 about Stephanie McKay’s debut album, McKay, which was produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Earthling’s Tim Saul. Because much of what I wrote still stands—because the album still sounds fresh and new, because permanently holds a place on the iPod—I thought I’d post it here. McKay was one of those astonishingly good UK-produced R&B albums which, sinfully, never found the audience it deserved. It sits alongside Lewis Taylor’s debut album as one of those magnificent albums that will turn heads whenever you put it on. Highly recommended. Sadly not available on iTunes (though her new album is) but it looks like the Amazon UK MP3 store has it.

For all the eclecticism that distinguishes R&B as a musical style, the ‘mature’ end of the genre can be surprisingly staid. While relentless competition for pop success pulls in sounds from UK garage and Jamaican dancehall, the more upmarket neo-soul sound is rather more conservative. Artists like Alicia Keys and India Arie establish their credentials by nostalgic invocation of Stevie Wonder, while others—Jill Scott, Angie Stone—appear stuck in the 1998 Atlanta production template.

That is one reason why Stephanie McKay’s self-titled debut album is refreshing. The production is handled by two outsiders to the US R&B scene, Geoff Barrow and Tim Saul. Both of these men—as the producers behind Portishead and Earthling respectively—were closely involved in the ‘Bristol sound’ that was at the core of the short-lived trip-hop genre.

There is a freshness about McKay from the outset: vinyl cracks and pops announce an analogue sensibility missing in the post-Atlanta sound of Timbaland and The Neptunes, and somewhat bypassed by the acoustic mannerisms of Keys, Badu and Arie.

There is also a distinct difference in tempo. The songs which sound most like Portishead - “Tell Him”, “Sadder Day”, “Five Days Of Faith”, “Thadius Star”—join precisely-arranged minor-key chord stabs to soundtrack-esque strings. But above all they display an awareness of space that outlines trip-hop’s debt to dub, fore-grounding thunderous bass figures and Barrow’s crisp drum programming. The production on songs like “Sadder Day” is meticulous and strident: a sparse acoustic guitar loop opens, before breaking into ruptured bass tones, dramatic string arrangements, a rattling mandolin and a backing vocal racked up to sound like Portishead’s trademark theremin.

McKay, formerly of The Brooklyn Funk Essentials—and a sometime associate of Kelis and Talib Kweli—is certainly up to the challenge. In “Sadder Day” her vocal gradually builds from the throwaway breathiness of the opening lines—“I ain’t got no money / and I don’t care / I been sitt-in’ down in this well I swear”. She accelerates through the following line—“Now I ain’t gettin’ nothin’ but the same old shit every day”—before strutting behind the beat to haul the song into the chorus. Later she displays a tempered command of melisma, and enough wit to tease out the emotional implications of the song.

The match between the vocals and production is often flawless. “How Long” works around a moody altered piano chord that recalls Wu-Tang. But the lush strings at the back of the mix and the delicate chord changes suggest instead the 1970s Gamble & Huff Philadelphia soul sound. The vocal works its way between the two extremes before building to such intensity that it seems ready to puncture the mix. There’s a gorgeous middle eight, too, in which a thickly harmonized vocal—“What time is it? What time is it?”—syncopates against the same bass-piano loop and makes it seem to lilt and buck in its moorings.

Elsewhere, Mckay’s impressive vibrato on “Rising Tide” finds all the angles in a rather harsh, unnerving song—from hip-hop vocal ticks through nursery-rhyme chant and molasses-slow behind-the-beat blues.

The lyrics are mostly devoid of the sentimentally and cliche that mark much songwriting of this type. The more earnest tracks, which flirt with a kind of Five Percenter spiritualism, are less interesting. But in general, the lyrics are well-married to the production.  “Echo”, a hypnotically-underproduced protest song, recalls Nina Simone’s ability to marry uncompromising politics to charming simplicity.

There is certainly a retro feel to the album, even animating the more lightweight songs. The dancefloor bubblegum of “Thinking Of You” brings to mind the sound of London’s pre-trip-hop Soul II Soul crew. “Take Me Over” is an unironic and unassuming faux-reggae piece, based on the Dave and Ansel Collins’ “Double Barrel”. It comes dangerously close to pastiche.

This shouldn’t suggest that the album lacks any flavor of contemporary R&B. “Bluesin’ It” has a distinct Timbaland feel: discreet parcels of sounds push the beat forwards. The tightly-coiled vocal wraps itself around the taut guitar and organ licks, before breaking into a coy and playful lilt. “Loving You” opens with a lean, sparse digital beat that recalls some of Jay Dee’s production, although the chorus—with its gentle string line and breathy high-range vocal—sounds eerily like Minnie Ripperton.

As with the much of the mid-nineties Bristol sound, it’s hard to distinguish McKay‘s fond regard for its influences from a general feeling of nostalgic loss. In either event, the hand-on-heart retro aesthetic causes a strangely weightless feeling of freedom from context. It is this weightlessness that animates and buoys this refreshingly individual album.