For the Record
Three reissued albums
by Pax Hyde
Four Tet, “Rounds” (2003, reissued 2013)
In the Northeast, November is the waiting season. The forest has long lost its fall colors and is now haunted by the tangle of bare vines and cool fog. The deep, green grass reflects the gray of the thick clouds hanging low in the sky, and the loam of farm fields lays neatly plowed, damp and heavy, waiting to be blanketed in snow. Asphalt is stained white with salt and frost. Stale leaves gather in the gutter. Not an inspiring season, but one heavily steeped in both nostalgia and anticipation. It is the scenery of “Rounds,” the 2003 album of hip-hop/electronica/jazz project Four Tet.
“Rounds” is a collection of images, every track sewing together numerous samples to form a quilted portrait. Each is built around extended percussion rhythms that are at times calm, at times energetic, but always steady. The unrelenting tempos are reminiscent of landscapes passing outside the car window or the flow of city traffic, almost a time-lapse in audio form. This centrality of rhythm anchors a bricolage of meandering instrumental melodies and the cacophony of sampling. In “Hands,” garbled keyboards gain clarity as they melt over the snare and calm bass. In “Unspoken,” the bread-and-butter drumkit and tambourine beats hold back the grating feedback and whining horns. Every soft-spoken track has a rhythmic will that evokes the sensation of being pushed inescapably forward, despite their general drowsiness. “Rounds” radiates with the same aura as the waiting season: calm, both gloomy and vivid, yet stirring with the gathering momentum of winter.
Round out your jazztronica knowledge:
Aphex Twin, “Syro” (2014)
Caribou, “Swim” (2010) & “Our Love” (2015)
Mariah, “Utakata No Hibi” (1983, reissued 2015)
As a citizen of the Western world, it is challenging to contextualize the genre patchwork that is “Utakata No Hibi,” the 1983 studio album by Japanese jazz duo Mariah. Reissued in September of this year, it remains an enigma that had previously earned a following for the dreamlike single “Shinzo no Tobira.” Jazz horns, incongruous synth lines and Middle Eastern and Japanese tones are shuffled and reshuffled, producing an entity that defies classification. What gives the album character, however, is its omnipotent and sonorous heartbeat.
“No Hibi” does not present a prevailing theme, rather, a propulsive evolution of moods makes it most valuable as a complete album. The marching drums of “Sokokara” are a welcoming salute, marking the opening of a drama. “Hana Ga Saitara” (“Were Flowers to Bloom”) is the engine of the album—industrious and motivated by walking bass and tenuto saxophone phrases. This is followed by the uncertainty of “Fujiyu Na Nezumi,” which gradually balances the unsettling effect of a dissonant synth pipe refrain with reserved percussion and a monotonous Armenian chant. These reversals of momentum become a staple, as the electrifying guitar riff and booming drums of “Sora Ni Mau Maboroshi” proceed to burst through in celebratory vigor before giving way to the ephemeral grace of “Shinzo no Tobira” (almost, “My Life is Big”). The genre and the progression of the album seems to become increasingly abstruse when analyzed to this degree, but that might be the point: don’t overthink it. Let the drums carry you through.
Embrace your confusion:
Battles, “La Di Da Di” (2015) & “Gloss Drop” (2011)
Vangelis Katsoulis, “The Slipping Beauty” (1989)
Brian Eno, “Apollo” (1983)
Digable Planets, “Blowout Comb” (1994, reissued 2013)
We’d all like to be effortlessly genius—we strive to maintain that illusory image of ourselves. But genius is never effortless, although I do not know anyone more successful in crafting that illusion than the Digable Planets with their 1994 album “Blowout Comb.” They develop an exceptional fusion of jazz and hip-hop, seamlessly supplementing their beats with deep bass guitar, horns, xylophone and other flourishes. It is too easy to become entranced in the serene timbre of their voices and forget the sociopolitical value of their music, as their work clearly and articulately espouses black empowerment. “We are the creamy spies/The cream always rises up” they rap in unison on “Agent 7 Creamy Spy Theme/Dial 7.” “Blowout Comb” is smooth and rich, and Digable Planets are unassailable.
Assembled in early 90s Brooklyn, the Planets were composed of the Seattle native Ishmael Butler (Butterfly), Marylander Mary Ann Vieira (Ladybug) and Philadelphian Craig Irving (Doodlebug). The ideologies of the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE), also known as the Five-Percent Nation, are clearly influential in the group’s message. The NGE (not to be confused with the Nation of Islam) is an Islamic faith that emphasizes the status of black people as the mothers and fathers of civilization. Their conception of each black man as a God and each woman as an Earth inspired the trio’s name. Astrological references abound in “Blowout Comb,” illuminating the constellatory significance of the group and their agenda.
Like the best works of art, “Blowout Comb” has a potency that makes it blossom with every replay. It is placid and poised, but not lacking a gripping confidence that shines through every track. On “Black Ego,” Doodlebug raps, “In a world of hard rock, I keep my humility/The funkanaut from the kingdom of not/With galactic sure shot, they can’t won’t don’t stop/Flock to the rhythm I bring.” He is simultaneously humble and a comet with “galactic sure shot,” indicating the strength of his will with which he elevates himself and affirming his status as a sort of divine leader. But such a title is not hyperbole. The Planets do inspire faith, and “Blowout Comb” is both their civil and cosmic manifesto.
Explore the galaxy:
Mos Def, “Black on Both Sides” (1999)
Gang Starr, “Moment of Truth” (1998)