[15 November 2009]
I certainly hope you have your bags packed before popping this disc into your stereo or loading it onto your mp3 player. If not, that’s fine. I guess. But don’t be surprised if playing Nicolay’s latest, City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, has you craving a trip to the Japanese city of the same name. It’s not that his soundscapes are oozing with traditional sounds from the country or anything like them. It’s just such an engrossing and gorgeous piece that you will want to experience everything he did for yourself. The Dutch producer was inspired during his trip to Shibuya a few years ago; you can read about that here. He was so inspired that he wanted to lay down his thoughts for all to hear. It’s safe to say we’re thankful he did just that. Even with its imperfections, his second volume in the City Lights series is a fantastic example of artistic growth and expression.
Perhaps the most appealing feature of this record is its clear display of artistic growth. Many of the experimental sounds here should come as no surprise to seasoned fans of Nicolay’s work. Leave It All Behind, his last effort as part of the Foreign Exchange with Phonte, featured plenty of subtle nuances which showed just where he was headed. It was not thrust into your eardrums like on here, though, so it’s possible those intricacies were missed by some listeners. One could argue that the dubstep-esque “If This Is Love” was a fine foreshadowing of Nicolay’s left-field tendencies. But other than on that song, they were more subtly woven into his production. Not this time.
His eccentricities don’t overshadow every single track, but Nicolay is out to show he’s not just another producer. The man is a beast, whether he is crafting a hip-hop record or looking to try his hand at a mix of ambient, post-rock, R&B, and other genres. Enter Shibuya‘s most experimental cuts. “Meiji Shine” is a shot right to left-field that listeners will either love or hate. But no one can deny the irresistibility of its pulsing synthesizers and vibrating bell hits. And how it builds into the Massive Attack-drenched “Shadow Dancing”? Priceless. Nicolay made sure to throw in a barrel of robotic drums, mournful piano licks, and enough erratic synths to have you wondering where this side of him was hiding before. When the keys come out towards the second half, I wish you the best of luck in not feeling the emotion expressed by his instruments. Also impressive are “Shibuya Station” and “Crossing”, both accentuated by their percussion. “Shibuya Station” gracefully interprets the sounds of the city, which are scattered across other tracks. You can almost feel the train shoot a breeze across your jacket as the drums and synths dance across the background. Those synths deserve extra attention, as they run the sonic gamut from watery to 8-bit to more traditional.
Nicolay’s experimentation isn’t always satisfying. “The Inner Garden”, though not a failure, does not resonate as strongly as the others, even if it does bleed nicely into “Bullet Train”. It’s mostly just an issue with some of his left-field material either blending together or sounding samey. Then again, he was going for a cohesive sound on here, which he achieved, so it makes perfect sense for tracks to have a similar vibe. For the most part, he is able to keep it cohesive and varied. “Saturday Night”, featuring songstress Carlitta Durand, is another near-solid track that just falls a bit short. It’s actually more of the aforementioned love-it-or-hate-it syndrome, like on “Meiji Shine”. This time it’s not that he gets experimental, but he takes it to the dance floor with Durand. The House-inspired cut is mostly all there, but it meanders too much toward the end.
In contrast, some of Nicolay’s more straightforward cuts are what longtime listeners will likely fall in love with. The album’s first track and single, “Lose Your Way”, is beautiful. Durand’s voice complements the music, which is lush and vibrant. She captures you with her vocals, which follow the synthesizer melodies and range from breathy to full. While she’s been kicking around the scene for years, this might be the type of song to truly open listeners’ ears to what she can offer. “Lose Your Way” is also a fantastic means of kicking off Shibuya because it is a smooth transition from what Nicolay was doing on Leave It All Behind. That also goes for the three-peat of killer tracks at the album’s conclusion. They start off with “Wake Up In Another Life”, another chance for Durand to strut her stuff with some help from Phonte. It’s followed by the horns and acoustic guitar-laden “Departure”, a solemn piece of beauty. Nicolay and Durand then bring everything to a halt on “Epilogue”. With bouncy piano, acoustic guitar strumming, and occasional woodwinds behind her, you will no doubt swoon over Durand’s harmonizing.
What Shibuya boils down to is this: Nicolay has taken his skills to another level, but in doing so will possibly confuse or lose some listeners. This album isn’t perfect. He makes a few missteps. Yet if you’re prepared for something a little different and mostly solid, this is for you.