As with Texas, Florida, Utah, and New York, stereotypes stick to the state of California like barnacles on a beached rock. You know what they are. Ironically, the only stereotype that seems to hold water is that California is, by and large, amazingly diverse, which is reflected quite pointedly by its musical identity. There’s been ska and skate punk in Orange County, sludge metal in Palm Desert, hip-hop in Vallejo, and minimal techno in San Francisco. Los Angeles—a city far too slippery to deserve its unflattering, one-note characterizations—has had a hand in more movements than I can name succinctly. At present, it’s one of the leading suppliers of both glitch-hop (Flying Lotus, Ras G) and indie rock (all the boys and girls from the Smell). FlyLo and Brad Laner live within, like, five miles of each other in the San Fernando Valley.
So when Boozoo Bajou’s Peter Heider and Florian Seyberth tell us that Grains is inspired by “that laidback California thing” with such glib familiarity, I can only assume that their idea of California is nothing but a great big hippie pot party. What the Nuremberg, Germany duo were after was the sound of Laurel Canyon in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Los Angeles neighborhood/zeitgeist that gave us the unplugged incarnations of Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, and Neil Young, among others. And the two chase that inspiration with an almost blinding idealism. Tempos are lazily slow, the mood consistently ragged from heat waves and so much marijuana smoke. The Horst Schäfer photograph on the front cover, depicting a fenceless basketball court in the middle of God’s Country in 90-degree weather, is just a little too on-the-nose in describing Grains’ vision of extreme, impractical leisure.
This new approach is billed as a departure from their previous recordings of electronic soul-jazz, but it really isn’t. Part of the downtempo scene that includes Fila Brazillia and Kruder & Dorfmeister, which peaked around 1999, Boozoo Bajou followed suit with a handful of mixes and two albums of own-productions that capitalized on their love of funk, blues, dub, and folk. Not only is the archetypal Laurel Canyon material fairly contiguous with this earthier side of downtempo, the duo also seemed less interested in jazz than their contemporaries. So Grains, as a concept, shouldn’t elicit more than a hearty shrug from those who have followed their career in any capacity.
The good news is that Boozoo Bajou are about as successful playing in this style as they’ve been with the plethora of others, which is to say, mildly to moderately so. “Tonschraube” (German titles? Really now?) and “Big Nicks” are languid and sensuous atmosphere pieces that do more to plunk the listener in Schäfer’s sun-baked scene than any of their neighbors in the tracklist. Each is just one hook repeated over and over for several minutes, but they work better than almost all of the look-at-me songs with choruses and vocals, which is interesting. “Fuersattel” is also a bit of a departure in that its feel is decidedly ‘80s, its ambling rhythmic clops and multiple rolling guitar parts suggesting Michael Franks or Acoustic Alchemy circa Reference Point. It needs a singer, but it scores valuable uniqueness points on a record that’s so dead-set on performing a single trick.
Speaking of singers, Grains has a bunch of them. The first voice we hear is that of Slackwax vocalist Bernd Batke, who fronts the opener “Flickers” with a cracked and very off-key croon. Maybe his voice would sound fine in another context, but laying him over the track’s endearing Rob McConnell-ish cheez whiz is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Noticeably better is Mr. Day’s Eric Duperray, providing perfectly appropriate faceless soul singing to the faceless soul of “Sign”. But it’s British singer-songwriter newbie Rumer that Boozoo Bajou consider to be their secret weapon, and they’re right, she’s good—but it’s remarkable how the quality of her voice changes depending on the song she’s in. On the tired late-album blues of “Messengers”, all I could hear in her contribution was Sarah McLachlan with less character, but she’s a revelation on “Same Sun”, where her delicate yet full-bodied voice slinks along Grains’ most mellifluous backing track. Like a typecast actress who’s finally been handed a good script, Rumer works with Boozoo Bajou’s best music in a way that highlights both parties’ skills, and it makes me wonder whether some material on the Sonar Kollektiv label could have seriously benefited from higher-caliber singers (with all due respect to Clara Hill).
The bad news is that even at its best, Grains still sounds like it was engineered in a laboratory. The duo’s extensive musical pedigrees and their knowledge of music theory is something of a mixed blessing, since the songs’ rock-solid constructions don’t allow any room for the spontaneity that was the province of the Laurel Canyon cohort to begin with. Heider and Seyberth go out of their way to explain that Grains was not an attempt to be authentically Californian, but after spending this past spring OD’ing on Quiet Village’s Silent Movie (a record that revives every certifiably uncool genre of the ‘60s and ‘70s) and the Caretaker’s We’ll All Go Riding on a Rainbow (which casts a haunting light on the corpse of 1930s ballroom music), I realize how much authenticity matters. Grains is the sound of two dreamers imagining the Golden State from halfway around the world, who try valiantly to capture the idea of California without the insight to see that no definitive idea exists.