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Dial M for Monkey

(Ninja Tune; US: 17 Jun 2003; UK: 9 Jun 2003)

You don’t think of chillout music as something that sneaks up behind you and throws you into a sonic headlock, but that’s more or less what Bonobo‘s Simon Green has done on his latest full-length, Dial M for Monkey. Urbane beat connoisseurs everywhere are going to throw this disc on in the background, then suddenly realize that all the ice has melted in the cocktail shaker because they’ve been standing there mesmerized for the last 20 minutes. Jazzier, cooler or more organic than most of what passes for downtempo and chillout these days, Bonobo’s debut on Ninja Tune, his first “major” label, is a subliminally seductive collection of atmospheric instrumentals blending the best of ‘60s mod soundtracks, globetrotting exotica, and trip-hoppy mood music. It’s exemplary.

The Brighton-based Green has been concocting his unusually sophisticated brand of downtempo (a term he doesn’t like, but no one’s come up with a better one) for years, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he really started getting attention with a sitar-soaked gem called “Terrapin”. That led to one original album and a collection of remixes on the Tru Thoughts label, and eventually to the Ninja Tune deal. Now comes Dial M, Green’s self-professed first “proper” album (the first one written and recorded all of a piece), and it picks up right where his debut Animal Magic left off, layering deceptively simple, delicate melodies and instrumental touches over rock-steady beats.

Bonobo’s influences are obvious but never derivative: The eastern-tinged opener “Noctuary” echoes the smooth, dreamy exotica of Thievery Corporation and Kruder & Dorfmeister; the mournful “Change Down” has the trippy atmospherics and edgy, restless beats of a track by DJ Shadow or Green’s friend and labelmate Amon Tobin; “Pick Up”, featuring amazing flute work by Andy Ross, sounds like a breakbeat remix of St. Germain. Mostly, though, Bonobo just sounds like himself, especially on standout tracks like “Flutter”, with its cascading glockenspiel tinkles, spy movie horns and infectious sitar riff, and the gorgeous “Nothing Owed”, a jazzy ballad with an unforgettable melody of interwoven guitar and keyboard that may be the best thing Green’s done yet—which is saying a lot.

Elsewhere, Green’s mastery of atmosphere enables him to craft songs that, while less immediately arresting, unfold over repeat listenings into extraordinarily evocative, almost cinematic collisions of jazzy instrumentation and modern beat science. Check out the start-stop rhythms and artfully modulated bass guitar on “D Song”, or the slowly building swirl of keyboards and synths that makes “Wayward Bob” such a hypnotic voyage into latter-day trip-hop. Even a throwaway track like “Something for Windy”, clocking in at a mere 1:11, has more atmosphere and groove packed into it than some downtempo purveyors can muster in an entire album.

After the unabashed prettiness of “Nothing Owed”, Dial M concludes with a more dramatic number, the almost orchestral “Light Pattern”, a cut that somehow manages to layer multiple string and horn tracks without ever getting mannered or kitchen-sinky about it. Credit Green’s unerring sense of groove and distrust of ear-grabbing melodies or solos (flute on “Pick Up” excepted) for keeping even his densest of arrangements from going off the deep end. Even on the shapeshifting “Light Pattern”, the bassline and drum track never get lost in the mix, and the parts definitely add up to more than the whole. It’s telling that for his upcoming tour with a live band, the multi-talented Green has decided to put himself on bass; where a lot of auteur artists would have grabbed the spotlight with flashier soloist instruments (are you listening, Moby?), Green would rather be hanging out in the lower reaches of mix, anchoring things down. Maybe it’s that low center of gravity that makes the music of Bonobo, so unassuming at first shine, so unexpectedly powerful. Powerful enough to throw you into a headlock and keep you there over the course of nine spacey, mesmerizing instrumentals.

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