[10 May 2005]
Crate digging is so In. Not the diggers themselves (sorry, guys)—those who drop hundreds of dollars/pounds, exchange prized possessions, make or break dreams all over that dusty yet coveted import alternate take remix with the color cover LP. Rather, it is the archivist vision attached to this distinctly urban sport that has become, in a word, hot. An isolated ritual once practiced solely by the fanatic collector and the savvy producer has become commonplace as music-listeners become increasingly knowledgeable themselves; oh, what havoc Ultimate Breaks and Beats hath wrought! Forget not the rise in home recording technology, allowing more aspiring Premiers to, um, step in the arena. In sum, the result has been: musicians from Bozulich to Breakestra zooming in on details from their musical genealogy; and listeners happily lapping it up (the difference between Tuff City and Soul Jazz? Youth marketing, baby). Thus, digging has become an appropriate metaphor for our meta/process-driven times; art not at the end of history, but more conscious of it than ever.
Within this realm of beats, breaks, and other archaeological reno-/innovations, Will “Quantic” Holland has a well-deserved reputation stemming from his kaleidoscopic aesthetic. At the tender age of 25, he has already exhibited a masterful control over beat-based music by fusing current popular finds in a creative manner—Afro Beat-sampled hip-hop in French on “En Focus” from his last album—while contextualizing his identity with conviction—a live band cover of 4hero, for example. In other words, he knows how to play the game without being played. It certainly does not hurt that Holland has demonstrated a comprehensive understanding (no longer a way to, but a form of innovation) of his field. Through his Quantic identity, he has fused the Small World of breaks into compositions ranging from deep sweat to deep concentration. He has also enlisted the help of acoustic musicians to form the Quantic Soul Orchestra, a live band effort that in fact functions in a similar space of making the past present. The latter project is of special interest, especially given the resurgence of live funk outfits; throwbacks, in the most literal sense. Instead of settling for a revisit of compositional and performance aesthetics of the past, the group updates them by essentially creating ‘live’ versions of studio productions. In this manner, QSO provides an organic palette for Holland’s collage compositions.
QSO follows up its 2003 debut Stampede with the pulsing Pushin’ On. As mentioned above, Holland is not content with rehashing staple breaks and beats—the greatest ‘hits’, no pun intended, of deep funk—but draws on each manifestation of beat culture. Pushin’ plays like a thoughtful tribute: to J.B. shuffle, Stepney lushness, Wanderley breezes, and a whole lotta S.O.U.L. Like a comprehensive mix, each track tackles a different, but complementary mode. In filtering these ideas, Holland wisely keeps the record lucid and to-the-point, never weighing itself down with density. Pushin’ thus plays like a record for the masses: enough drive to fill the floor and plenty of sounds to keep the thinkers nodding. The album thus works well in the now: a fully accessible and reflexive past as a porthole to the present.
Pushin’ splits its time between dancefloor-ready instrumentals and swingin’ vocals, yet moves from style to style with style from track to track. “Introducing…” and “West Pier Getdown” open the album with gang buster guitar riffing and body rockin’ horns, respectively. The tradition-steeped introduction builds to Alice Rusell’s power struttin’ entrance on “Pushin’ On”: beats by the pound, stilettos to the dome, and a yeeeeeaaaoooww! that would have Tina running back to Nutbush. Before settling in this proto-funk territory, the record takes an international jaunt. “Feeling Good” nods to Buarque’s Brasil with its soft brass lines in unison and gorgeous strings, while “The Conspirator” sounds at home on the Ethiopiques series. While a steady backbeat remains the relative constant in all these cuts, Holland spreads the influences far and wide to give the album a sense of progression.
Pushin’ ultimately comes together around Holland’s farsighted production. With sounding exceedingly clean, he gives each instrument breathing room so that no sound is in competition with another. On the aforementioned “Feeling Good”, fat bass tones lay a soft clay surface for the melodic lines to dance lithely above. Russell sings with a slight breath, careful to never overpower the track. The balance in arrangement and engineering lends the whole recording its depth, making it the ideal soundtrack to a perfect Sunday morning cruise. Holland also allows for give and take between instruments to establish a natural equilibrium, such as the tinny guitar that takes center stage on the intro to “The Conspirator”, only to be followed by bleating horns moving like a sumo wrestler. As low end fills out the track, Holland keeps the snares sharp and pointed, as if to keep the song from falling too deep into an extreme. The effort is duly noted; it makes for an intelligent and well-crafted listen.
Pushin’ benefits from its brevity, as it achieves what it sets out to accomplish: move some butts, make some smiles. As the title could suggest Holland does not aspire to innovate in a genre defining sense by taking leaps and bounds, but rather in relation to his personal aesthetic; he’s just doin’ the grind to push himself creatively. With solid and comprehensive attention shown throughout, Holland reaches this modest goal. While Pushin’ may not be received by the majority of listeners as an essential, a milestone, Holland is the wiser to recognize when to say when. He chooses to not make a fuss about such a seemingly simple affair. Pushin’ is humble in scope, yet complete in its approach. It’s a dig both done right and gone right. And for that alone, it’s all right to say: hear this.