Monday, June 1, 2015

album review: 'in colour' by jamie xx

So first let's talk a little about remix albums.

Believe it or not, even despite being in an era where electronic music is bigger than ever, outright remix albums don't seem to be as popular as they used to be ten years ago. Sure, you'll see a few of them in pop, especially from acts who are more on the electronic side and want to push the success of their albums a little longer by enlisting various DJs to remix their material, but the concept of one producer remixing an entire project from another artist is a lot less common. Granted, we live in the era of the internet, where you can find dozens of remixes of entire projects on Soundcloud or YouTube within hours of the song dropping, but to be able to infuse the entire project with a distinctive and unique personality is a different matter entirely.

And thus you can kind of see how big of a deal it was when Jamie xx, producer and remix artist known for working with the critically acclaimed indie pop group The xx teamed up with Gil-Scott Heron to make We're New Here, a full remix album of Gil-Scott Heron's album that had dropped the previous year after sixteen years of absence from the music industry. And while Jamie xx's personality had been visible with The xx, his glassy, edged synths, subtle beats, and crisp percussion paired with Gil-Scott Heron's aged vocals were much more striking. Of course, one of his beats ended up being sampled by Rihanna and Drake for 'Take Care', which was a massive hit in 2012, but honestly, I've always liked Jamie xx's original version more for its greater texture and edge, and thus I was anticipating his upcoming debut with a fair amount of excitement, even though I found the second album from The xx album underwhelming and lacking some of the melodic tightness I dug on their debut. So did Jamie xx manage to deliver on his own with In Colour?

Well, I'm here to tell you what so many other critics will likely say in the next few weeks: Jamie xx probably dropped one of the best electronic albums of the year, an eclectic, gleaming record that's a study in meticulous contradictions and organic vibrancy I haven't heard since probably Todd Terje last year. And yet as an album, it only has broad thematic strokes in common with It's Album Time, as compositionally it shies away from bubbly retro cool to bring a more modern yet no less human sensibility. Or let me put it this way: this is an album where not even a guest appearance from Young Thug could completely ruin it! Yes, it's that good!

So the most appropriate place to start would be the instrumentation and production, but if you're familiar with The xx or We're New Here, you're not exactly going to be surprised by what Jamie xx delivers. Tinkling melodies that have a ton of texture and unique character while often flitting outside of expected progressions, gentle swells of misty atmospheric harmonies that compliment them, and precise layering of waves of fuzz, reverb, grit, and backing sound to create a startlingly organic picture. The most immediate comparison for me was Imogen Heap's last record Sparks, especially in its ability to cultivate such a powerfully gorgeous atmosphere, but while she reached for the ethereal and otherworldly, Jamie xx finds a rawer feel of beauty. There's nearly always a primary melody or vocals that are audible, near the front of the mix driving that main throughline and keeping the attention, but the backdrop of the songs paints a sonically massive picture, highlighting a stark contrast between the individual experience at a rave or festival and the collective swell. More than most albums I've heard this year, this album has such a powerful command of space and dynamics, fading between layers of distance and intimacy in a way that unifies the interweaving melodies incredibly well. Take the opening track 'Gosh', which barely begins with a melody at all, just a clattering groove, a stalking low-end beat, and a voice with a Caribbean accent declaring amazement... before the beat itself picks up a melodic progression as a reverb touches synth line soars across the track, a distant clarion call. 

And really, those masterful transitions and flow are all across this record, elements that shouldn't make sense or work, like the doo-wop male vocals, cooing female vocals, harp-like keys and oscillating waves of crisp percussion on 'Sleep Sound', and yet blend together to create moods encapsulating the heady rush of being one with the crowd and yet the powerful feeling of loneliness within it. There's an odd feeling of restraint to this record that's starkly different than that of The xx - the world is a distance to reveal a simple truth at the core, often encapsulated by faded pianos or the vocals of his bandmates in The xx Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. It lends the album a feeling of soaring, spacious melancholy, if that makes any sense, from the oscillating empty quickness of 'SeeSaw' to  the odd lack of celebratory fun in the steel drums when set against lonely xylophones, faded, submerged guitars, and a blubbery beat on 'Obvs'. The most stripped back and plain example of this is 'Stranger In a Room' with the tight, minimalist synth melody, which builds to the edged swells, smoky drums and stuttered, noisy beats of 'Hold Tight', muffling a voice shouting 'what you see / you know what you want'. The final track 'Girl' is like this too, with a thicker bass groove and thinner guitars against klaxon-like swells and a handclap booming as the pitch-shifted vocals oscillate over the dense, crowded mix. Hell, even the interlude  'Just Saying' is great, with a smoky sound that sounds like a sputtering train carrying the melody and beat before switching to a piano's swell. The song that might feel like an outlier at first was 'I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)', with Popcaan's great dancehall chorus, thick snaps, and a gorgeous synth outro.. but there's Young Thug. And look, on some level I have no idea how serious I'm supposed to be taking him, because his bars are such a hyperbolic parody of lecherous sex jams that I almost started laughing and was even kind of enjoying it... until we got talking about molesting or lines like 'I wanna control you like voodoo'. He does fit the song, I just wish his lyrics actually felt structured or even had the free-flowing organic fun like Chance The Rapper instead of just coming across as incompetent.

But putting aside him... honestly, the lyrics really worked for me on this album. The scene is set early on 'SeeSaw' by showing how one's former lover hooked up with her best friend, and the loneliness that comes with seeing them having fun, the song doing a very solid job of balancing that quest for escape even as you are acutely aware of your own unresolved emotions, even if it's just for a night like on 'Stranger In A Room' - a parallel that matches the same undercurrent of emotion that anchored Todd Terje's debut record. And that balance is damn near perfected on 'Loud Places', with Romy's aching melancholy paired with an old-fashioned sample and beat that reminded me of Before Today-era Ariel Pink more than anything as the guitar, drums, and handclaps get noisier. And that's before we get to one of the best songs on the record with 'The Rest Is Noise', which begins with a reversed and clipped synth lead blending into harmonic oscillations, anchored by low thrumming chords from a piano before stripping it back for fluttering arpeggios that brings in this huge rollicking bassy beat that the synths come to match on an absolutely fantastic crescendo.  

Honestly, I'm hard-pressed to find real criticisms of this album outside of Young Thug - the songs never overstay their welcome with maybe the exception of 'Hold Tight', the plethora of ideas makes for a gorgeously inventive and yet cohesive record, and lyrics - normally the glowing red weak point on electronic records - are stunningly effective despite their simplicity, balancing the emotion damn near perfectly. It's rare that electronic music hits me this hard, and Jamie xx found a way to do it in one of the best electronic albums that'll be dropped this year. For me, I'm thinking a light 9/10 and the highest of recommendations from me. If you're a fan of electronic music - or hell, just damn incredibly well produced, varied, and melodic music in general - you need to hear this album. Trust me, this is something special.

No comments:

Post a Comment