For the majority of Dan the Automator’s initial fanbase, I’d wager most figure he hasn’t been very busy the past few years. I know the last time I heard his name being attached to anything new was a mixtape series for the 2K Sports video game franchise. That was 2006. Meanwhile, not only was Dan decidedly not not busy, he’d shifted from hip-hop to more band-oriented work much as Danger Mouse did over the same period. The key difference of course being Dan’s preference for psychedelia, which lead to collaborations with Mike Patton, Kasabian and Dredg. Pillowfight, a self-titled collaboration with (essentially) lifelong musician Emily Wells, probably appears on my radar mostly because it’s a return to a more hip-hop like atmosphere, but it’s a collaboration I think deserves a spotlight in its own right.
Emily Wells was previously unknown to me, but her admittedly limited vocal range is mostly very enjoyable here. “In the Afternoon” and “Rain”, the second and third tracks, are Pillowfight at their most essential and potential. Wells plays the duck-lipped chanteuse Lana del Ray tried to sell us last year, but it’s infused with a sense of both Emily Haines’s detachment and the smallest pinch of Nancy Sinatra’s snark. Backed by Dan the Automator’s familiar yet vibrant sound that feels lifted directly out of the late ‘90s trip-hop scene with the slightest of adjustments, for most of the album it’s just hook after hook. While “Rain”, “You’re So Pretty” and “I Work Hard” are probably most indicative of what this album has to offer, it’s the utterly out of nowhere “Get Down” that unintentionally throws a wrench in things.
“Get Down” truthfully belongs nowhere near this album. Unlike anywhere else on the album, here Wells is Karen O doing Debbie Harry, and Dan the Automator is in full on mid-80s jukebox anthem mode. For three minutes Pillowfight becomes this ecstatic peek at what’s suddenly, obviously what this collaboration might should have been from the very start. I’ll take stuff like “Rain” and “I Work Hard” when I can get it, but there’s nobody doing “Get Down” quite like these two did it, and it’s really a bummer to me that we didn’t get any more of that. Especially followed by “Darlin’ Darlin’” and “You Don’t Need Me”, the unintentional wrench’s sadly deserving victims.
“Get Your Shit Together” is an early dash of weird choices, with a bombastic chorus of brass for the hook that belongs on a Deltron album and clashes with the song almost entirely. But there’s really no accounting for what “Darlin’ Darlin’” is, a bland enough track until the unmistakable melody of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” envelopes the chorus and the experience is immediately wrapped in jaded boredom. It’s an incredibly tedious four minutes right there, one that goofs the entire mood. Luckily “You Don’t Need Me” is a drunkard shamble, quickly distracting listeners’ minds with a totally brain-clobbering single, piercing drum topped by a shrill Wells that can’t help but get even worse as a chorus of Ghost Wells’ imitate some odd combination of “Blue Jay Way”, “Strawberry Fields” and “Another Brick in the Wall”.
Lateef the Truthspeaker’s three appearances across the album add an interesting, additionally nostalgic element to what’s already aggressively an album banking on fondness for old things, but he’s mostly just dressing and he seems to know it. Pillowfight is ripe with good intentions, many of them delivered on. But from the first moment you hear “Get Down”, this first-time collection becomes a collection of decent ideas anchored by this one dynamic specimen. The second half of the album feels like a less ideal take on what was and is enjoyable pre-“Get Down”, and so as “Sleeping Dogs” comes to a close along with the album, it’s hard not to regard the whole experience with near equal amounts of slight satisfaction and slight disappointment. Pillowfight is a fun little distraction, but ultimately feels mostly like dressing without much cake underneath.
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