BPM Counter: First Five of 2009

Aether: Artifacts (Exponential) [US]

URB Magazine calls Artifacts a hip-hop album, unquestionably. I challenge that statement because I feel that just cheapens the icy beauty of 2008’s best electronic album.

That challenge’ll take some doing since most of my friends into labels like Mush, Anticon, and Stones Throw are feeling this album from long-standing San Antonio micro-imprint Exponential.

Even my friends who would turn their noses up at those kinds of “race” records yet turn around and buy albums from Warp (WASP?) artists like Boards of Canada and Flying Lotus are feeling this one.

Sure, Artifacts is even constructed of pastiche of loops — just like a hip-hop album, but the only guy in hip hop capable of making a record like this is DJ Premiere, from whose playbook Aether borrows liberally. I can practically guarantee that Primo ain’t gonna be rockin the M83 or My Bloody Valentine‘s “Glider” EP in search of those fragile melodies and tender hooks all over this sucker.

Twenty years ago this album actually would have been labelled some sort of goth or Cure-damaged amalgam, stripped of the boom-bap, and it’s hard to shake the emotional and art-damaged beauty Aether steals directly from dudes like Roger Eno and Steve Reich on this album. But here comes the “amen” break, some Lee “Scratch” Perry sub-bass action, the latest noise from Berlin, and even a few timbales.

Voila! Suddenly, the trip down new romantic lane got enough rhythmic go juice to keep high-school kids from getting their asses kicked for daring to explore their sensitive sides. There are so many possibilites uncovered on Artifacts, from indie to ambient, but what this is definitely not is unquestionably hip hop. Rather, it is one of the great downtempo chill albums of this decade.

John Tejada: Fabric 44 (Fabric London) [UK]

Twice last year, the Fabric label looked out westward for some top-shelf DJ mixes. First we had Mark Farina on #40 — who sounded better than he had in years — and closing out the 2008 roster comes this offering from Los Angeles techno veteran John Tejada.

This guy has been around forever and worked in every facet of techno, including mid-’90s drum & bass. But at his molten core, like many other DJs from LA, you’ll find a KDAY influence buried below. The infamous AM radio station was known in the 1980s for its electro-party style, typified by artists like the World Class Wreckin Cru and J.J. Fad.

As expected, the mix has some of those KDAY electro underpinnings, but it could have used some old-school quick mixing tricks to enliven it. The second half of the mix after Orbital’s acid/piano house classic “Farenheit 303” just fades into a dull and tuneless mess.

It’s a shame because the first half of Tejada’s mix brings out some undiluted techno influences, and frankly, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear that in opposition to all of the SF tech house and everyone else’s just-plain-dreary minimalism. Too bad Fabric 44 is so hit or miss, as though Tejada can never quite find the right groove.

If techno boys like Carl Craig and Justin Maxwell ain’t your bag, I’d say you can probably safely miss this one. But even if you do like this kind of stout techno, you may be kinda disappointed by Fabric 44‘s lack of focus.

Hercules and Love Affair: Hercules and Love Affair (DFA) [US]

I absolutely loved this record. It has become one of my favorite mainstream pop records since the second B-52s album. And though there is no “Planet Claire” on the self-titled debut album from this NYC nu-disco outfit, it does manage to crank out a theme song (“Hercules Theme”) and “Blind” — one of the finest singles of 2008.

“Blind,” especially, has the whole Nile Rodgers ’80s thing going on, but the lyric delivered by transgendered persona Antony is as painful and bittersweet as anything penned by Patti Smith.

That combo of Manhattan indulgence and Lower East Side grittiness had me immediately identifying with Hercules and Love Affair while the slick dancefloor production left me ready to bust a move. I wish more pop albums could be this bold and yet still manage to have some fun.

Various: Sean’s Lolla 08 Mix

My pal Passean has a definite nose for good pop music, and this collection inspired by his annual pilgrimage to Lollapalooza was an excellent indicator of what was actually good last year that got played on the radio — something that most of you reading this will quickly discover that I know little about.

Cat Power does her best to sound like Chrissie Hynde jamming with the Muscle Shoals players on the empowering rocker “Aretha, Sing One For Me,” while Warp artist Jamie Lidell channels his inner Motown on “Little Bit Of Feel Good,” “Another Day,” and “Wait For Me” from his latest.

These artists shocked me by wearing their influences so much on their sleeves, and yet the retro appeal somehow really worked for both of them quite well. I was also surprised at how I absolutely fell in love with the Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson pairing, “Valerie.”

I know the inspiration for the song is the Brill Building and old Phillie Spector all the way, but with a barbed lyric and Winehouse’s raspy pipes, I’d say this song was better suited for a punk rogue like Johnny Thunders. But with all of those greats dead now (RIP Ronnie Asheton), who could even do this song properly (although I do have visions of Elvis Costello & the Attractions…)?

I really miss simple two-and-a-half-minute pop gems like “Valerie,” and Mick’s kid seems capable of making them in his sleep. To Mr. Ronson, I say, “Kudos.”

Lastly, I wanted to mention Marshall Law — a DJ that my man Passean really supports and turned me onto a few years back. Law is obviously an old-school college radio DJ, and doesn’t create the typically annoying Beyonce vs Nirvana or Phil Collins vs ANYBODY mash-ups associated with dead-from-the- neck-up plane-crash survivors like DJ AM. On the two cuts on this comp, he wields his massive record collection like a highly specialized weapon.

The street music rave-up is part hip hop and part The Blow Up and could only be topped by the flawless “All Apologies” mash-up. I generally hate mash-ups because they debase the power of the DJ’s hands, but when I hear a cat like this tear it up manually on Nirvana like that, it restores my faith in the DJ — which has been shaken these past few years.

The rest of the disk is loaded mostly with the typical college rock faire that I have grown tired of over the years and did little to spark my interest, but these above-mentioned artists made me rethink writing off 2008 as a total lost cause.

Lars Horntveth: Kaleidoscopic (Smalltown Supersound) [Norway]

Norway’s Smalltown Supersound imprint is no stranger to 30-minute-plus epic tunes — look no further than Lindstrøm‘s latest album for proof of that.

However, the sophomore album Kaleidoscopic from Jaga Jazzist leader Lars Horntveth takes that extreme to its logical conclusion with an album that is 37 minutes long and composed entirely of one track — “Kaleidoscopic.”

Do I dare call this a single, and how much will it cost if I buy it on iTunes? Performed by Horntveth and the 41-piece Latvian National Orchestra, the album is a concept soundtrack to an imaginary movie, and what a movie it must be.

I hear echoes of George Martin‘s side on the BeatlesYellow Submarine album and even funky old Lalo Schiffrin in some places, but generally, Kaledioscopic sounds like a low-rent version of Philip Glass on ecstasy at a rave, trying to convince everyone that he’s Steve Reich and coming up with the soundtrack to The Party instead.

It’s fun, but in the same hollow kitchy way that those Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman records are too.

– Sean-Michael Yoder

Sean-Michael Yoder is a Chico, California-based music writer and tastemaker. Check out more at vinyljunkierecords.blogspot.com

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