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Nightmares on Wax

In a Space Outta Sound

(Warp; US: 7 Mar 2006; UK: 20 Mar 2006)

I awaited the release of the new Nightmares on Wax album with a tentative feeling of apprehension similar, but not entirely contiguous, to dread. Although albums such as Smoker’s Delight and Carboot Soul remain well-respected touchstones in the world of downtempo electronic music, 2002’s Mind Elevation represented something of a departure. Although not a total shift in terms of mood, the album nonetheless represented a significant change in the producer’s methodology. It was in essence a step backwards, away from the lushly-produced, borderline cinematic hip-hop compositions of his mid-period (to say nothing of the acid house of his early years) and in the direction of what could most charitably described as old-school jazz and soul pastiche.


Nightmares on Wax, the nom de guerre of DJ George Evelyn, essentially followed the same path as California-based DJ and producer Greyboy, by almost entirely stepping away from the popular downtempo and trip-hop—or, acid jazz—he had helped to popularize. Those in the electronic music scene had watched with some consternation as the nascent genre was hijacked by the same cosmopolitan scenesters who can be depended on to suck every last bit of cool from a trend. But it is somewhat perverse, not to mention downright churlish, that some of the most popular practitioners of the acid jazz sound have so thoroughly repudiated the scene they helped create. Those of us who remembered the dynamic languor of Carboot Soul could only scratch our heads in wonder at the lifeless and sterile somnolence of Mind Elevation. Sure, the endless procession of coffee-table trip-hop bands was a drag, but this was an overreaction in the wrong direction.


On the one hand, I can certainly understand why a certain breed of producers are fascinated by and drawn to the vintage soul, funk and jazz recordings of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But how is it, on the other hand, that such knowledgeable and talented producers are unable to pay direct homage to these periods without producing music that is, quite simply, about as compelling as watching paint dry? Funk and soul are not museum pieces, and approaching them with such a studied and respectful conscientiousness almost inevitably succeeds in draining every ounce of life from them. There were those who disliked Mind Elevation simply because it wasn’t Carboot Soul II, but I wasn’t one of them. I disliked Mind Elevation because it was an enervated and overly-mannered failure. A noble, well-intentioned failure, perhaps, but a failure nonetheless.


In a Space Outta Sound is neither a full reappraisal of the soul homage of Mind Elevation or a return to the lush sound of Carboot Soul. Rather, it strikes a convincing note in the middle ground somewhere between the two approaches. It still carries a strong taste of the previous album’s ascetic distance, but there’s enough verve present to push it out of the realm of total listlessness.


Nightmares on Wax albums usually begin with slow-building introductory tracks, and so In a Space Outta Sound begins with “Passion”—ironically, perhaps the least passionate track here. When I heard the track’s lackadaisical mix of discrete hip-hop beats and subdued Hammond organ, I gritted my teeth and prepared for the worst. But thankfully, “The Sweetest” came forward with a funky dub-reggae beat and slightly menacing bassline—(very) modestly reminiscent of mid-era Massive Attack in its mixture of dub’s moody atmosphere and hip-hop’s sample-based brio.


The dub motif continues throughout the album, showing up in the dancehall-esque “Flip Ya Lid” and, later in the album, the sleepy anthem “Me!” “Flip Ya Lid” in particular is an extremely able updating of the vintage dancehall sound, complete with vintage ‘60s guitar licks and what sounds like genuine analog echo (but which is almost certainly the clever digital approximation of same). “Pudpots” is an instrumental track constructed around a series of horn flourishes and jazzy breakbeats. The construction is similar to many of Evelyn’s past compositions in terms of elegantly simple structure and execution, even if the results are deceptively busy. Unlike many producers who fill their compositions with multiple lines of thought, Evelyn tends to keep his ideas focused and almost elementary. When he’s off, the results can be pedantic and cloying—but when it works, the results can be eloquent and surprisingly rich.


The conflicting sides of Evelyn’s production acumen can be seen on “Damn” and “You Wish”. “Damn” is almost a textbook example of an insufficiently developed idea, a seven-and-a-half-minute ballad built on a dry rhythmic framework that shuffles along for the entirety of the song without so much as a hint of tension. “You Wish” is half as long, but it’s twice as satisfying a track because it manages to produce a ready evocation of tension in the form of the kind of slow, languorous guitar work that could have—and probably did—come straight off a ‘60s funk record. Somehow the mixture clicks on “You Wish”, whereas “Damn” flops around in an unsatisfactory shamble.


Thankfully, he knows enough to pick up the tempo in the album’s second half. “Deepdown” is downright funky, a subdued but still quietly riotous examination of bongo breaks offset by jazz samples and odd, vaguely Latin melodic touches. “Me!” almost sounds like a DJ Shadow composition, containing the same distinctive mixture of ‘70s sounds—dub, rock and light jazz—that Shadow brought to many tracks on The Private Press. The ballad vocals don’t necessarily work as well, but they are fairly innocuous.


But for every misstep early in the album, the final tracks deliver a compelling argument in favor of Evelyn’s continued creative relevance. “I Am You” is everything “Damn” wanted to be—an epic soul balled built on the backbone of an incredibly funky rhythm section and developed into a massive, sustained exercise in dynamic tension. You get the very strong feeling that this is what Evelyn has been working for during the last album and a half worth of his output—something tasteful and reserved in keeping with his previous style, and yet still passionate, able and willing to express more than merely just sterile craftsmanship.


“Soul Purpose” is an odd hybrid of ‘70s soul-pop—think the Chi-Lites—and an electro breakdancing jam. Somehow, it manages to hang together. But the best song on the album is probably the last, “African Pirates”. More than any other track here, this has energy and life to it. More than merely the sum total of the samples involved, this manages to add elements of every phase of Evelyn’s career. A dense, sample-oriented hip-hop construction evokes memories of early acid house as well as Latin dance. It swings and swaggers with a confidence that just wasn’t present for much of the album, or indeed, the entirety of Mind Elevation.


And just when you think In a Space Outta Sound is just starting to build some momentum, it’s over. This is slightly frustrating, especially for those of us who have been waiting a while to hear Nightmares on Wax regain the poise lost on their previous release. It’s possible now to look at parts of this album and see what he was heading the whole time, and see where the sound can go in the future. While it would be presumptuous to call the album a definite return to form—there are still too many mistakes and tentative missteps—it can be classified as a step in the right direction. At this rate, with the confidence he’s regained and the valuable insight into the mechanics of the soul and funk records he idolizes, Evelyn’s next release should be one to watch.

Rating:

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