Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Flying Lotus- Cosmogramma

Squarepusher's Music Is Rotted One Note is one of those 'lost' masterpieces that you don't hear talked about all that often these days. Its refreshing synthesis of Miles Davis's electric-era fusion sound with 90s electronic music (specifically, the drum 'n bass and IDM styles that Squarepusher had been working in) makes for one of the most original and thrilling listens in all of electronic music. Squarepusher would mostly abandon this style afterward, though the “folktronica” of Four Tet is a clear descendant, though it may be a case of parallel evolution. Mixing the organic, often jazzy or folky, sounds of guitar, bass, drums, and piano with driving and grooving electronic beats, samples, and keyboards, songs such as 'And They Look Broken Hearted' and 'Hands' off of Rounds sound like someone patching segments of old jazz records together in a post-modern cut-and-paste fashion. The jazz influence on these two projects is even more telling when you know that Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) collaborated with jazz drummer Steve Reid, and Squarepusher is an accomplished bassist who often improvises along with his laptops and electronic gear.

And then there's Flying Lotus. A nephew of John Coltrane, Steven Ellison's new album, Cosmogramma, showcases an artist who has furthered the jazz/electronic dichotomy of Music Is Rotted One Note and Four Tet into strange and fascinating new territory. I'm unfamiliar with his earlier work, but this album is, arguably, more true to the spirit of jazz than the album and artist just mentioned. This's because there's a restless, improvisational feel toCosmogramma that draws as much from avant garde and free jazz as it does the chaotic, fidgety, and never-repetitive music of certain artists and genres of electronic music (you know, the sort of stuff like early kid606 that has you and your friends giggling and typing “LOL so random!” to each other on instant messenger). Such a mix may sound daunting and difficult, but thanks to Flying Lotus's abilities as writer, arranger, programmer, and producer, the album is equally enjoyable to listen to as it is to talk about. An experimental genre fusion thinkpiece that is actually fun and makes you want to nod your head? Madness!

The best musical fusions neither call attention to themselves as novelties nor obviously reveal their constituent parts. In those regards, Cosmogramma is a quiet, underground revolution in electronic music. Mixing jazz (both sampled and live; John Coltrane's son, Ravi, also Flying Lotus's cousin, plays on the album), restless electronic music, videogamey beats and samples, the impressionistic vocals of Thom Yorke and a few others on some tracks, and a hip hop producer's penchant for brewing up memorable grooves and pristine-but-not-clinical production, Flying Lotus has crafted a set of songs that are constantly changing and mutating in a swirlingly intricate but always digestible fashion. It may sound and feel like an electronic album, but it is equally about the improvisational chance taking of jazz, mixing and juxtaposing sounds, melodies, and rhythms in a dense dervish that recalls Miles Davis's legendary Agharta and Pangaea live albums in spirit but not necessarily content.

Cosmogramma primarily sticks to succinct song lengths and a constantly fresh stream of songs that sound of a piece but never repeat ideas, bringing to mind albums with similar formatting, most notably the MF DOOM/Madlib collaboration, Madvillainy. In fact, 'Computer Face/Pure Being' sounds quite a lot like a Madvillainy instrumental, though far busier and with less of a grooving beat to rhyme over. Meanwhile, 'Arkestry' makes a titular nod to Sun Ra while being one of the more jazzy and spacey tracks on the record. 'Pickled' sounds like a Jaco Pastorius bass solo trading blows with a lurching, shuffling electro beat.

The longer songs on Cosmogramma, however, are where its truest sense of discovery lies. '...And The World Laughs With You' so subtly adds, removes, inverts, mixes, and reintroduces sounds and rhythms that it's striking how natural it sounds when heard as background music and during close listening. When Thom Yorke's vocals come in around the 2:44 mark, they don't feel like a spotlight or featured collaboration as most hip hop albums would treat them as. Instead it's much more akin to how El-P described the many guests on his I'll Sleep When You're Dead album: “...little splashes of other peoples[sic] voices, talents, energy used in subtle ways...” Similarly, the female vocals on 'Table Tennis' are reminiscent of Massive Attack or Portishead at their most dreamy, but they're floating over a bedrock of, what else, table tennis found sounds and dense keyboards, all of which are ushered out of the room by a plaintive acoustic guitar at the 2:30 mark.

2010 is shaping up to be one of those bumper crop years for great music, and Flying Lotus has produced one of its freshest and most original. Belonging as much to electronic music as it does jazz and hip hop, Cosmogramma is a brilliant fusion of styles, ideas, and sounds that never comes off as dry and intellectual as genre fusion experiments can. Instead, there's a natural and easygoing spirit to this music that is utterly listenable and alive, felt more in the gut and the heart (and the booty) than the head.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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