Wax Poetic's Series of Streetscapes
Ilhan Ersahin, founder of Nublu and bandleader on the Wax Poetic project, adores collaboration; each record he produces maintains a unique style derived from and influenced by the others in his team. In the past, that’s included then-unknown Norah Jones on vocals, Saul Williams, and Jamaican dub artist U-Roy. The most recent releases by Wax Poetic—a trio of records named after the places that both inspired and served as home during production—draws on the talents of Marla Turner, Bebel Gilberto, and the highly acclaimed Brazilian Girls, among others. These musicians make for an odd combination; their distinctive but ultimately too-varied styles would not blend well together on a single release.
As a series of albums, however, the cacophony of sounds proves more eclectic than disjointed. Each of the releases—Copenhagen, Istanbul, and Brasil—pulls from the local music scene and reflects both the cultural sensibilities and the landscape. Where Copenhagen plays up the darkness of Northern Europe, Istanbul musically takes on the history and vibrancy of a busy metropolis, and Brasil fluctuates between modern urban stylings and musical traditions like the Bossa Nova and samba.
Copenhagen, the first in the series, maintains a distinct, rocky aesthetic that reflects the Scandinavian city’s shadowy musical sensibilities. The overall sound, an upbeat blend of classic rock sounds tweaked with keyboard and turntable interruptions, is more Garbage than the Sugarcubes, but hints of the latter band are present in the songs’ heavy, somber electronic twists. Still, it’s vocalist Marla Turner who takes center stage throughout, and it’s her voice that ultimately drives this album. “I don’t want to sound like somebody else,” Turner says, and her extensive range prevents that on this release. The lyrics she works with, however, leave a bit to be desired—the simplistic earworm chorus on “NYC” includes “I’m scared / I’m in New York City / I’m in New York”; unpoetic words that don’t embrace Turner’s potential.
Turner’s vocals are notably diminished in the second installment of the series; Wax Poetic is an entirely different—and less depressive—band for it. In an altogether different vein, Istanbul takes on the sounds of Turkey’s largest city, a metropolis that’s been home to founder Ilhan Ersahin as well as three empires, and which now houses over 15 million people. The result is a compilation as diverse as the city of inspiration, a true representation of modern world music. The project again combines traditional instruments with electronic devices, though the results sound a world apart from that on Copenhagen. This technically vibrant album combines the loungy dance songs and jazz riffs Wax Poetic is best known for with hand drums and conspiratorial whisperings in Turkish. Each of the twelve songs is as different as the next, though each pays homage to and embraces the shifting streetscape in the bustling city: stray dogs bark in the background, a hi-hat pops into the scene, a smoky-voiced balladeer speaks. It’s the experimentation with unusual street sounds and the combination of these noises with jazz elements that makes this album the most addictive and successful of the three.
Brasil, the final release, represents a variety of sounds in a mixture closer to the trip-hop that the band produced in its early days. A downtempo opener sets the scene, a relaxed canto with a haunting Caribbean background. The samba switches to a fast-paced out-of-place track setting angry recitations in Portugese against an intense thriller soundtrack backdrop. This quick shift in style, though perhaps a product of the band’s heavy influence of collaborators like Bebel Gilberto, Mamelo Soundsystem, Sabina Sciubba of Brazilian Girls, and Forro in the Dark, proves off-putting initially. As the project moves back to the more folksy, hand-percussion laden ballads, however, it recovers quickly and gracefully.
The varied nature of collaborative projects makes labeling the sound of Wax Poetic’s records nearly impossible, and though this is something the musicians have good reason to feel proud of, it’s difficult to recommend the series as a whole because of the vast differences in genre and sound. Depending on mood or preference, however, Copenhagen, Istanbul, and Brasil can offer something to nearly everyone.