01 Mar, 2013

Jamie Lidell – “Jamie Lidell”

Jamie LidellWhat exactly is Jamie Lidell’s place in music today? Back in 2005, around the release of his breakthrough LP, Multiply, he seemed like a world-beating maverick, an irreplaceable artist with the highly unique aim of integrating avant-garde electronic music, exemplified by the artists’ on Lidell’s venerable, groundbreaking label, Warp, with half a century’s worth of soul and R&B. When he released Jim, in 2008, he asserted his real-world chops with a decidedly more retro sound, one that more subtly inserted the discordant synths and impossible-to-replicate-without-a-drum-machine beats of the Warp IDM he traffics in. So has Lidell found a way to create a more complete sound? A sound that will propel him past the level of “that Warp guy who does soul?” Is there anything in particular to make him continue to stand out as a real innovator in today’s musical landscape? Well, in a nutshell, sort of, probably not, and not really.

That’s not to say, however, that his recently released self-titled LP is truly lacking, but more that the uniqueness it once might have carried has been minimized by today’s popular music landscape. The years since Lidell’s last release (2010′s Compass) have seen R&B become arguably the dominant paradigm in pop music, from the BillBoard charts all the way to the avant-garde fringes. This has caused a tremendous degree of artistic cross-pollination, with oddballs like How to Dress Well filling his albums with choruses lifted from such relatively obscure subgenres as New Jack Swing and Top 40 giants like Usher taking cues from James Blake. James Blake himself is as perfect an example of this new tendency as there is, a pale Londoner doing work that draws immensely from the classic R&B and soul wells, but just as much from cutting edge bass music to create an entirely cohesive, defined sound, a near-flawlessly executed aesthetic.

Jamie Lidell doesn’t seem to value that sort of focus as much in his music. He’s always been something of a musical gadfly, jumping from sound to sound, style to style without creating an aesthetic that means a whole lot. Sure, the line on him is that he fuses IDM and R&B, but much of the time, that involves repurposing numerous styles and sounds and dropping electronics in. This can make for music that gives you one hell of a dopamine rush, but it never feels quite like something Lidell completely owns. Where an artist like James Blake (and I use him as an example simply because he’s the first to come to mind, numerous others would fit just as well. These could include, but are in no way limited to: The Weeknd, How to Dress Well, Autre Ne Veut, Miguel, Frank Ocean, Purity Ring, Rustie, etc.) can take sounds built on radio-pop and, with their own expertise and personality, create a sound that’s part of that R&B lineage, but also unmistakably new and progressive. Lidell, while a strong technician and an equally strong personality, makes music that rarely rises far above the level of pastiche.

So that answers the second two questions I posed, but what about the first one? And, for that matter, what of the most important question of whether or not the thing’s actually any good, regardless of such overly critical concerns? Well, there is undoubtedly a high degree of cohesiveness to this record, more than any of Lidell’s records other than Jim. It’s rather remarkable how much you can tell about Lidell’s albums thus far by their titles. Multiply and Compass are far-ranging, eclectic collections that bounce from genre to genre, sound to sound at will. Jim and Jamie Lidell, however, are closer to being one-sound albums. Where Jim strove for the classic, buttoned down sort of soul-pop sound of the sixties and seventies, Jamie Lidell is firmly rooted in the neon spandex eighties.

The album is made up of eleven cuts of prime Reagan-era roller-rink Funk with a capital F, and lest these last few paragraphs have led you to assume that Jamie Lidell’s man-without-a-country status has somehow hampered his ability to get down on it, please allow me to reassure you that even if this guy might not be the most innovative man in the world, might not be the guy who’s going to take IDM or R&B to their next evolutionary step, he’s got a serious talent for steamroller funk songs. “What A Shame,” the record’s first single, is also probably its most effective and effectively integrated track. It’s got a slithery funk backbone with strobing synth hits that verge on dubstep, the original, somewhat more minimalist (read: has some purpose beyond the beat-drop) English variant of which has had an absolutely profound effect on all of modern R&B. “Big Love” has a massive chorus as archetypical and elemental as its title, the sort of chorus that grabs you by the throat (or perhaps some more sensitive body part) and forces you to ride out the adrenaline rush. In keeping with his IDM leanings, there’s a brittleness to some of Lidell’s electronic affectations, maintaining an edge, a menace, a nasty little swagger on songs that might otherwise feel bloated with excess.

In addition to this however, there are defiantly retro touches like the synth burps that power “You Naked,” a touch that cannot help but leave you wanting for the vocoder that would normally accompany such sounds on a Roger Troutman song. “So Cold” is a space-y respite from the aggressively dance-y tempos of the rest of the record, and in melody and composition is so reminiscent of the work of Andre 3000 that only the addition of Lidell’s comparatively unimpressive voice keeps it from being a Love Below outtake. Lidell’s voice, on this song and on a number of others, serves as the album’s biggest identifiable weakness. He’s not a bad singer, not exactly, but he’s also certainly not much better than “workmanlike” and it seems he’s aware of this as well, stacking overdubs and vocal effects until his relatively flat voice is almost unintelligible. It’s not until the last song, “In Your Mind,” that we hear anything that could maybe be put down as Lidell’s signature sound, a sound that works on a level beyond entertaining pastiche. At once cacophonous and highly melodic, funky and brittle, and working perfectly in favor of Lidell’s own voice (both literally and figuratively) “In Your Mind” works on nearly every level, and if Lidell could effectively continue on with this aesthetic, he may once again fit more easily into a role in pop’s modern era.

Review by Ben Klibaner. 

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