[22 July 2012]
Readers with long memories may recall “Thou Shalt Always Kill”, a viral 2008 novelty single by dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip. It was sort of a Brit-rapped update of Baz Luhrmann’s sunscreen song that was equal parts clever, smug, icky, and insufferable. The bearded duo parlayed their notoriety into two albums and received a gratuitously negative Pitchfork review, a badge of honor like a Weird Al parody. Now they’re putting out solo albums. Rapper Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces came out last year, and his producer dan le sac counters with the new Space Between the Words, a role-clarifying title if there ever was one. (Fans of the duo take heart: they’re still touring together and they’re not clashing, not at all. dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip is everlasting.)
Most everyone seemed to agree that le sac’s electronic production was better than his partner’s rapping. Indeed, le sac fills Space with a variety of fine beats and effects, from the opening handclap rhythm that runs two minutes before the drums kick in, to the closing cover of Arab Strap’s “Cherubs”, his groaning, steampunky arrangement both sinister and sad. The problem remains with the Words. As though unsure of his abilities, le sac has loaded this album with vocal collaborators and allowed them to tramp their muddy feet all over his exquisite production. Results vary, but these guest stars frequently undermine le sac’s tracks by turning them into underwhelming pop songs.
For example, rapper Joshua Idehen’s “Tuning” most closely approaches the list-novelty ideal of “Thou Shalt Always Kill”. Idehen riffs on the words “sometimes”, “often”, “always”, and “never” in ways that are equal parts clever, smug, icky, and insufferable. (“Always you, always me / Always lookin’, often seen / Often lookin’ for my keys / Always beef, often cheese”, and similar profundities.) If you can ignore the guy, le sac’s music is hard to resist—propulsive darkwave with 8-bit stabs and ominous whirring—but he just lets Idehen keep going with those annoying adverbs.
When you add a vocalist to an instrumental, the vocalist tends to take over. (Anthropologists can probably explain this phenomenon.) A good vocal can spark an instrumental to life, but a bad one simply distracts listeners from whatever else might be happening. Space tends to favor the latter. HowAboutBeth’s faux-soulful oversinging ruins the woozy sound beds in “Break of Dawn” and the demented laser-happy “Caretaker”. On “Good Time Gang War”, B Dolan raps through a megaphone or something, “We lost a lot of good men out on the dance floor / We spilled buckets of blood out on the dance floor”. He borrows this idea from crunk, which was fully exploring the implications of violent dancing more than a decade ago, in far more immediate songs like Three 6 Mafia’s “Hit a Muthafucka”. Dolan doesn’t sound like he’s ever spilled anything on a dance floor, unless you count the time he and Sage Francis haggled over a craft beer.
If le sac really wanted to create the best possible production showcases, he should have stopped being so polite and just chopped up his guests’ vocals into rhythmic effects. He tries this tentatively in “Good Time Gang War” and with Sarah Williams White in “Play Along”; the resultant cool sounds make you wish he did it more often. And sometimes his vocalists don’t need any tricks. In the album’s most successful sequence, a skittery tubular-belled instrumental leads into “Zephyr”, sung by Merz in a state of depressive bliss, which leads into “Breathing Underwater”, where baritone Fraser Rowan drowns in ecstasy. Around the singers, le sac designs pretty sonic architecture from squelches and space.
Mr. le sac clearly knows his way around cool synth sounds. If he wants to turn that knowledge into successful music, he should turn ruthless and drag his vocalists through the machines as well. Or hire better ones. Or just eliminate them altogether—this album makes me curious to hear the space between Space Between the Words.