Un Fine Debut
Most bands use the “Influences” section on their Myspace pages as a resume, listing the important titans of music that have come before them, showing off a depth of musical knowledge. That or they go the sarcastic route, leaving it blank or filling it in with a joke or visual pun, showing they are too cool to list their influences.
Dan Black lists two artists in his “Influences” section: Jay-Z and Sigur Ros. It initially seems like an odd pairing, particularly if you have heard any of his music. But the sentiment, at its core, is an intriguing and slightly accurate one once you have heard ((Un)), Black’s debut full-length album, in its entirety. Operating in the shadow of other, more successful, mainstream artists in the realm of the annoyingly titled “wonky pop” genre (Lady Gaga is usually named at the top of the list), Black (who splits his time between London and Paris) does at least manage to combine the Jigga Man’s love for big, tasty beats and production with a smidge of Sigur Ros’ panache for big, art-drenched emotion. It’s not like you’re going to find Dan Black busting out rhymes about New York gang life or employing shards of bowed, white noise guitar, but bottom line: this is an artist intent on bringing art to the dance floor, or vice versa.
If you’ve heard him at all, you’ve probably heard the single “Symphonies”, which proudly samples both an ancient orchestra and the clattering drums from Rhianna’s “Umbrella” into a seductive and affecting plea about demanding more from the life you’ve been handed. Originally, sampling was Black’s main game; before it became “Symphonies”, he called it “HYPNTZ” and included lyrical elements from Notorious B.I.G.‘s ‘90s hip-hop staple “Hypnotize”. However, before Black could pull the trigger on the single, Biggie’s estate stepped in and demanded the lyrics be removed. Oh, well—it’s better for it. As it stands, it’s a slice of perfect pop-art, as accessible as it is transcendent. And as great as the song is, the remix is even better, with misfit rapper Kid Cudi adding some solid rhymes and surprisingly touching vocals, giving the track a refreshing layer of street weariness.
Black’s closest contemporary touchstone is Justin Timberlake, an artist with a similar goal of making dance-oriented pop music as an art form. JT took his major step forward with 2006’s Timbaland-produced FutureSex/LoveSounds, which managed to set a new standard for quirky detail in pop production. ((Un)) isn’t as quirky or expansive as that album, but it’s clear that Black has a fondness for both Timbaland’s funky, muscular production and attention to detail. Black’s emphasis on thick, live-sounding drums, speaker-thudding basslines, and sugary synths comes across like Big Tim without the exotic, Eastern music flair.
Like Justin Timberlake, Black also sports a legitimate, emotive, even moving falsetto, which he showers over pretty much every track here. His voice is sweet enough for pop radio, but with his occasionally whiny delivery and devotion to thick harmonies, it’s weird and intricate enough for an indie rocker’s headphones.
“U + Me =”, despite having a horrible title, is one of Black’s finest. If the bangin’ drums don’t reel you in, then maybe it’ll be the sugar rush chorus, which finds Black wailing “You and me, we’re just fine / One million invisible lines / Up your head and into mine” in falsetto over blaring, icy synths. It’s romantic, captivating, and way more lyrically intriguing than it has any right to be. “Pump My Pumps” and “Alone” are filled with deep, late night funk, both anchored by insistent bass thump supporting Black’s typical webs of vocal harmony. This is dance floor euphoria, but Black makes it sound as easy as taking out the trash.
Like most good pop albums (including Timberlake’s), the ballads are inevitable. The difference between Black’s and JT’s is that Black actually writes effective ones (I would ask whether anyone else remembers Timberlake’s horrendous “Losing My Way”, but I’m sure that, like me, you’ve blocked it from your memory). Surprisingly, some of most affecting tracks here are the slowest and least dance-oriented. “Cocoon” has acoustic guitars, glorious vocal harmonies, and the line “Just wrap me ‘round / Wrap me ‘round / Wrap me ‘round your finger!” On paper, it sounds like a disaster, and perhaps it should be, but Black manages to deliver even the sappiest sentiments with such passion and intensity, it’s impossible not to fall under his spell.
Yeah, you can poke holes if you want; ((Un)) isn’t a perfect statement. The galloping “Yours” is a bit too whiney for its own good, and “Cigarette Pack”, for all its crystalline beauty, comes dangerously close to OneRepublic attempting an epic, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. However, even the average songs are listenable, and there’s always an interesting sound or captivating texture lurking around every audible corner.
Dan Black intends to simultaneously move your ass and stimulate your brain. He wants it both ways, and for most of ((Un)), he delivers without breaking a sweat. This is music made equally for headphones, clubs, and car stereos. This is as creative and re-playable as debut pop albums get.
Toward the end of the “Symphonies” remix, the sonic flood suddenly drops to a whisper. Over a dusty vinyl beat, Kid Cudi, an angel amidst the quiet buzz, sings, “I live, I live, I live, I live for symphonies!” Let’s just hope Dan Black keeps doing the same.