[7 May 2013]
No matter what your opinion is of Harmony Korine’s nihilistic rom-com Spring Breakers, the soundtrack served as an informal microcosm of today’s electronic music culture. Its congruence of contrarieties—Skrillex’s blissfully ignorant arena dubstep spooning Cliff Martinez’s lush yet introspectively muted soundscapes—exposed a genetic homogeneity, effectively harmonizing that imperfect beauty with the film’s similarly flawed beauties. Such is the evocative potential of electronic music today, from the big room boom felt simultaneously by thousands of revelers to the cozy comforts of an immersive headphone session at home alone. An artist that can coax sonic resplendence out of his stubborn machines in both types of settings immediately accomplishes more than any well publicized, hotly tipped and carefully coiffed indie rock four-piece of the moment.
This makes If I Tell U’s arrival all the more compelling, as Phaseone—a.k.a. Brooklynite Andrew Jernigan—originally became known among blog habitués for his propitiously passable reworks of Animal Collective and Panda Bear material. His wanderlust, as well as a fatigue with the rap production hustle, steered him away from twee populism and led him to an sample-free approach to composition. Where less talented producers might have faltered, Jernigan clearly settled in comfortably with his precursors. Indeed, lacking the damage of Flying Lotus or Lapalux, Phaseone’s ambient pop has more in common with classic Rephlex than current Brainfeeder.
Paralleling the work of AFX and Ceephax, If I Tell U is inextricably linked to the past yet still quite contemporary. “Tangiers” especially exemplifies this phenomenon best, with squelchy Vibertian acid stabs mingling with breathy vocal mutations and ethereal R&B pads. “Tropicalist” further connects the artist to that latter burgeoning movement, while cuts like “Bodega” and “Hunter” glimmer like mid-‘90s braindance deep cuts. Nothing is ephemeral or slight here, as tracks unspool with a crushing glamor that would overwhelm in the club yet subdue in the intimacy of home listening. Opener “Blood Spirit I” spends more than eight minutes getting at this, halfstepping through a field of peaking arpeggios and delay-drenched croons.
Repetition, occasionally, works to the detriment of the oft lovely record. Though Phaseone’s reliance on subtle changes and knob twiddling may connect him to those aforementioned IDM antecedents, at times the music careens either unintentionally or ashamedly into new age insufferability. “Arsenal Magnolia” reminds of Tangerine Dream at their most cloying and saccharine. Closing cut “Phaseone” is pure day spa schmaltz, sounding much like the “time’s up” music one might hear at the end of a prenatal massage. That particular lowlight is jarring given what directly precedes it, the gloriously foggy and trap-influenced “Dialogue”.
In the hands of a diabolical DJ, much of this material could metamorphose into hard hitting dancefloor fodder. If the marketing minds behind the Adult Swim backed Williams Street Records haven’t already begun thinking of a subsequent remix project, there’s a real opportunity lost. As it stands, If I Tell U features plenty of candidates for that late-night programming block’s infamous commercial break bumps. Yet the best way to experience this sometimes somber, recurrently rich album is with the television set off.