Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Nine

9 Burial, Untrue

Just look at what they've done to your triphop. It has fractured, fragmented, spawned offshoots, the names of which are new - Untrue is said to have sprung from the world of dubstep - but the genres have enough in common that we can speak of them as representatives of a common aesthetic, the antecedent and the offspring, linked across a decade by analogous worldviews and near-identical genome maps.

Regarding triphop, though select few examples of the form still sound fresh, it has been absorbed into the larger pop music cannon by virtue of its age and so, like all classic rock, it has sacrificed much of its relevance. After all, Massive Attack's genre-defining Blue Lines album came out 16 years ago now. It's a genre dusty enough to have earned the patina of nostalgia, a sound of weariness and disaffection that nonetheless seems innocent and naïve now, given everything that's transpired since (indeed, don't all cultural artifacts from the twentieth century now seem charmingly, even heartbreakingly bathed in the light of innocence?).

But from the bones of that forebear, an anonymous London producer called Burial has crafted a new and more desolate aural vision of urban alienation, loneliness and fear. Imagine Mezzanine stripped of all warmth or erotic undertone, the lines more askew, disconnected, broken. Instruments enter the mix, ricochet about, disappear. Harmonies lie half exposed, forgotten; melody takes a back seat to atmosphere. But the starkest element is the human voice, isolated and robbed of context, but human just the same, and so very desperate. Vocals stolen from club jamz, dropped into these barren surroundings, and made all the sadder for it. The reliance here is on an R&B accent perhaps a bit more than dub reggae (as was the case with Massive Attack), but that's splitting hairs. Ultimately, it all derives from the same root; it's like comparing a corpse and a skeleton, or a photo and an abstraction of the same subject.

One of modernity's defining characteristics is the breathless pace of change. The world has become, in the last decade or decade and a half, a darker, scarier, more divided place. We thought we knew what loneliness, alienation and disaffection were in 1994. Listening to Untrue suggests we didn't know a blessed thing.

8 Groundtruther, Altitude

Groundtruther is a project featuring the talents of guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer-percussionist-electronic fidgeter Bobby Previte, a planned trilogy of releases on Thirsty Ear, each to spotlight a different guest musician. On 2004's Latitude, that guest was saxophonist Greg Osby; 2005's Longitude saw the duo welcoming DJ Logic to the fold in a live setting. On the third-and-final Altitude, the special guest star is keyboardist John Medeski, one-third of Medeski Martin & Wood.

Altitude is a double album, split neatly between the electric first disc (with tracks named after the highest places and structures on Earth) and the acoustic second half (tracks named after the lowest points, i.e. undersea features such as the Mariana Trench), and generally speaking the first disc rollicks where the second is a more pensive affair. What's consistent is the trio's devotion to invention, seemingly intentionally painting themselves into corners just to see how they'll work their way out. It's a highwire act throughout, with Medeski happily avoiding the well-worn soul jazz phrases that tend to make up much of his musical dialect. Hunter also impresses for his willingness to play outside his comfort zone.

Improvisation entails accepting a certain degree of risk. On Altitude, this latest incarnation of Groundtruther takes that tenet to heart, flying high above what might be considered safe, staring down a tremendous fall, and ultimately thrilling with their ability to keep aloft.

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