Monday, March 7, 2016

album review: 'motherboard' by lmno

Those of you who follow this channel know that I'm a fan of LMNO - or at least you'd assume that, given how many times I've covered him in detail. This will be my fifth review of one of his projects, and while for many artists that might encompass their entire career, LMNO is the sort of guy who will continue to push out records at frankly an alarming rate. Hell, back in 2010 he released ten albums in one year with a variety of different producers - at some point, I'm amazed he hasn't run out of ideas or things to say, because he's not the kind of guy to make it easy on listeners either, thanks to off-beat lyricism, high-concept songs, and a vocal tone and delivery which some have described as a little monotonous but also has emotive subtleties I think are underappreciated.

But there's one thing LMNO has not done in his years of releasing underground records, and that is produce an album himself - and let's make this clear, taking that additional step is a big one. Sure, you'd think that a veteran MC would know the best beats he could flow over - and let's be honest, I'm fairly certain LMNO could flow over anything - but production is an acquired skill. Most people with the right tools can structure a beat, but speaking as someone who once tried to produce an album, pairing a beat with a good melody and then the production to feel cohesive and not sound like absolute ass is a goddamn art and is so much harder than it looks or sounds. As much as I've ragged on producers like DJ Mustard or Mike Will Made It or Jay Joyce, I'm not going to deny how difficult good production is.

So I had reason to be worried when I heard that LMNO was going to be producing his newest album himself, called Motherboard, but I was intrigued, especially because word was it was going to be more electronic and experimental, mostly influenced by fellow underground artist DVINE1, with minimal samples and more live instrumentation. So even if this was going to be a disaster, it sounded like the sort of experimental risk that I've been wanting LMNO to take for years now, so you can bet I was covering it - did it work?

Well, yeah, it really did. And as a fan of this guy I really shouldn't be as surprised as I am, but for this being his first time really handling production himself - with some capable assistance from DVINE1 but still distinctively his - LMNO really sticks the landing with Motherboard, to the point where I can easily say this is his most experimental, interesting, and hard-hitting record since After The Fact with Evidence in 2013. And while there will be some who'll listen through this and say, 'Well, it's not that different than the albums LMNO has been pushing for years'... the devil is in the details, folks, because this record is excellent.

And the best place to start is LMNO himself - and while many would describe his off-kilter, conspiratorial rasp as an acquired taste, this is the best I've heard him sound on the mic in a long time. I can't even make the criticism that he's monotone the same way anymore, because while he's often quiet and keeps a similar tone, there is real modulation and intensity to his delivery that you wouldn't have heard in the same way three years ago! And though he doesn't really sing his hooks, they have a peculiar way of really sticking with you, from the ominous mantra of 'Forward March' to the choppy 'LB legaCy' to the hollow warping darkness of 'Trollchella'. I will say - again - that his flow isn't always the easiest to follow, thanks to the shifting cadences and rhyme schemes - but the only points where it got distracting was on the two interludes 'Better Days' and 'Fluke', where he feels buried so deeply in the mix that he was actually a little hard to hear. Not the point where it got distracting, mind you, and I could still make out what he said, but I can see how some might take issue.

But really, it worked because of the production... and my god, this might be the first time LMNO really took the lead here, but it does not sound like it! This was the sort of production that has been lurking around the edges of his past few projects - abrasive, more experimental, blending the organic and electronic in lo-fi, dilapidated dust, and he pulls it off excellently. From the opening horn sample on 'Forward March' that bleeds into the muted organ, tinkling fragments, roiling bass, lo-fi live drums, and warping electronic effects, this is a mix with so much texture and unstable grit that I'm amazed how well the melody came through. And while previous LMNO projects have had a very monochromatic production style to them, Motherboard actually has some experimental diversity I really dug while still maintaining a cohesive foundation. The sleigh bells that bounce off the faded organ and warbling vocals on 'The World', the lo-key boom-bap funk of the guitar line on 'LB legaCy', that thick oily swell of the low synth on 'Glow' with the incredibly thin popping beat, the guitar-driven melody that plays against some filthy drums and oily bass on 'Trollchella'... hell, even the interludes have a ton of smoked-out eerie texture I really appreciated, even on the extreme lo-fi of 'Fluke' that preserves melody in the guitar and symphonic vocal. Of course, the beat that'll attract the most attention is 'Deadification', which takes a very prominent Grateful Dead sample that later breaks into the drum circle you'd expect after a Grateful Dead show, but the production I want to talk about is 'Run Dancehall'. That massive alien low-end synth, the dirty drums, the minimalist bass split by shrill police whistles, the drowned out vocals, it still manages to build into a great groove that hits with impressive impact. If I'm going to find production I like less... I wasn't wild about the chirping synth on 'Voyage', but probably my biggest gripe is on the hook on 'The Quickeness' - I really dug the xylophone scale that opens the handclaps and the gurgling synth that still drove the alien backing tones, but that chiptune hook... I've never heard LMNO try for that brand of theatricality, and I think it could have worked if he was a little more on rhythm or the song had a little more space to breathe and build. That is an issue with this project - it's a very quick listen at just over a half hour and there's a lot going on in the production, and yet there's enough hooks and ideas that I could have taken another fifteen minutes to give these tracks a little more room.

But then again, if you dig into this record thematically, this is probably LMNO's most focused and lean record in years. On previous albums he's shown a tendency to wander into lyrical rabbit holes that can be impossible to follow, but this record really doesn't do that. It's still oblique and will need a good dozen listens to decode, but there's more focus and succinctness in the writing that I want to highlight, distilling his ideas down to their roots, to the motherboard. And that's another thing - more than most cases, LMNO is more introspective on this record, not just to his position as an indie rapper with a strong political bent - 'Run Dancehall' is the best example of exploring that scene - but to what made him who he is as an MC. He's got his broadsides he takes at the prison-industrial complex on 'Forward March' and 'The Quickness' - I particularly loved the line 'bear to arms is a right not dare' - and of course his methodical assertions placing indie wordplay over shallow and increasingly phony luxury porn - 'fact is fiction disserviced' - but what I found fascinating is how he dug into what brought to that ideology. You get fragments of it across this record - the melancholy of a long-failed relationship on 'Better Days', highlighting his own wild years that drove him inward on 'LB legaCy', to the haunted look at festival culture on 'Trollchella', which shows just how much he doesn't really belong and how much of a sick hollow joke so much of it can feel like. And initially I was thinking that the pretty straightforward 'Deadification', being a tribute to the Grateful Dead, didn't really fit on this record, but it does fill a role, half because of the echoing backing vocal implying that he isn't really a hippie in the same way... but he's accepted anyways. But interestingly, the track that probably sums it up the most is the closer 'Fluke' - almost by accident he never found huge success, but he found his lane, forever living the in-between, hard-edged lyricism balanced by cryptic wordplay that might seem shallow until you decode every line.  And yeah, if you're an LMNO fan, you already knew this, but what I appreciate is that LMNO speaks to his own luck with real gratitude and an acknowledgement of how the only way he made anything of that fluke chance is through hard work and an acceptance of who he was, which came forward most on 'Glow' as he admits he's not rap's Messiah.

So look, at the end of the day, this is a record that feels deceptively larger and smaller than it is. The production is bigger, heavier, more aggressive and experimental than ever as the content turns more introspective - and yet it finds a way to meet in the middle with tons of quotable lines, solid melodies and hooks, potent insight, and one of LMNO's best vocal performances. In other words, I really dug the hell out of Motherboard by LMNO, even if, once again, I know I'll be one of a few to really appreciate it. I'm not quite certain it's one of the best of the year, but it's certainly one of LMNO's best, and that means it's a strong 8/10 from me. Folks, do not dismiss this album: with Motherboard, LMNO went to his core, and he found something worthwhile, definitely check it out.

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