[21 January 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
On first listen, Bird Brain is so smooth, so effortless, it seems to float by like so many other “artist albums” by respected DJs. It sounds just fine making its way through your ear lobes but never really registering in your frontal lobe. With repeated listens, though, the songs come back to bite you. Each one is full of character, runs with its own vibe, and is full of passion, the one trait all-too-often missing from modern dancefloor music. It doesn’t take long for Bird Brain to win you over.
Many listeners won’t need to be won over. San Francisco-based VonStroke, real name Barclay Crenshaw, has already caused quite a stir among house music fans with his 2006 breakthrough club hit “Who’s Afraid of Detroit”, subsequent mixes, and 2007 debut album Beware of the Bird. His Dirtybird and Mothership labels have turned VonStroke’s deep, funky sound into something of its own sub-genre. VonStroke admits Bird Brain showcases a more smoothed-out, daresay radio-friendly approach. New fans are likely to be won over, but die-hards need not worry. With a vibe this good and tunes and beats to back it up, the album transcends any worries about the slight stylistic shift.
One of Bird Brain‘s greatest strengths is easy to overlook. At ten tracks and just under an hour, it’s an exercise in brevity by regular dance music standards. By forgoing the onslaught of a disc-stuffing run time, VonStroke gives each track a chance to shine in its own right, and creates an album which, though diverse, can be taken as a cohesive entity. You’ll find yourself actually establishing a relationship with it. That’s no small feat for any album these days, especially in the overcrowded “electronica” realm.
Bird Brain plays like a particularly funky, sensual night out… or in. Every track bears mentioning, because they all have personalitites of their own. “Monster Island” gets things off to an energetic, house-style start. With its tribal drums and minor-key brass blasts, and a Slinky of a bassline undulating through, it plays like a lost theme from an underground crime caper. Then, who other than Bootsy Collins himself should show up for the aptly-titled “Greasy Beat”? A 58-year-old Bootsy, still with that cartoonish, dumbstruck voice, uttering a line like “If da’ funk gets too hot for yo’ rump, turn the other cheek”, may or may not be your idea of a good time, but it sure suits VonStroke’s loping, squishy rhythm.
Lest Bootsy’s cameo come across as little more than a gimmick, the next few tracks find Bird Brain hitting its peak without him. “Vocal Chords” highlights VonStroke’s penchant for integrating sampled syllables of human voices without being annoying. Swinging completely away from the sick groove of “Greasy Beat”, it’s a carefully-measured, rather pretty techno anthem along the lines of classic Underworld. Then, the fun really starts with “Big’n'Round”. A vintage, hollowed-out house rhythm echoes around your speakers as a straight-up midtempo rhythm toys with samples and deep synth chords. Remember Lords of Acid? Consider this a streamlined, contemporary update, and the best ode to female mammaries since Joe Walsh made his fondness clear 25 years ago. There’s your floor-filler. But then, just as deftly as he’s gotten the party started, VonStroke dials it back with the widescreen, slow-motion trip-hop of “Bay Area”. Where Bird Brain, up to that point, has worn its sexuality on its subwoofer, this time it’s all innuendo, kept under a thick atmosphere. In just five tracks, VonStroke has deftly moved from style to style, about-facing at every step without throwing you off track. Brilliant.
Not everything on Bird Brain reaches such undeniable highs. “Aundy” is a nice, tranquil drum’n'bass throwback, but the more manic tech-funk of “California” and “Beat That Bird” push that edge between clever and annoying a bit too far. The literal-minded “Storm on Lake St. Claire” tempers rumbling 4/4 beat with trembling synth lines and rolling thunder. The brief “Jasper’s Baby Robot” sounds exactly like its title, a robotic toddler fiddling with its parents’ equipment and hitting on some beautiful bits by accident.
Big name DJs usually struggle with “artist albums”, but VonStroke seems to have figured it out. To be successful, you have to have an identity, ideas, and good songs. Bird Brain has all three, and doesn’t overstay its welcome, allowing you to appreciate it a little more with each listen.