[13 November 2005]
There are pleasant albums, and there are boring albums. A pleasant album can keep the listener interested in all kinds of non-threatening ways, soothing the ears, providing easy-to-follow beats, enveloping the listener in warmth and familiarity. A boring album, on the other hand, uses many of the same elements but never achieves anything past being easy to ignore. A boring album plays in the background and either nobody notices or it eventually gets turned off for the preferable sound of silence; a pleasant album plays in the background and occasionally makes its presence known via the invocation of a foot tap or a quiet hum. A pleasant album sustains a pleasurable mood, where a boring album quickly dissolves into a quiet annoyance.
Little Plastic Pilots treads the line between the two just a little too closely.
Little Plastic Pilots is the chosen moniker of one Sam Nelson, an electronic artist on the Kanpai label, and he cites such scene-specific luminaries as Autechre, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Harold Budd, and (brace yourself) Fugazi as influences, but it is really only the Boards of Canada influence (with a bit of the quirk that Aphex Twin can provide) that comes through. Layering mellow tones on top of heavily processed beats, Nelson wears the Boards’ sound on his sleeve, opting for unthreatening melodies and unchanging beats in favor of anything that could possibly be labeled “challenging” or “innovative”.
The result is something that often falls on the side of “pleasant”. Opening track “Words and Music in Color” is a lovely bit of Aphex-lite, actually a bit reminiscent of I Care Because You Do‘s opening track “Acrid Avid Jam Shred” in its beat and light feel. The vocoded, spoken letters are a little bit on the cheesy side, but they actually add a bit of percussive grounding to the loping, almost clumsy drums. The track that follows, “There’s a Shipwreck Down There / From LA to Lamey” is a wonderfully static bit of ambience with a light beat, the perfect kind of melodic electronic loveliness that you can just lose yourself in for seven or so minutes. Closing track “Sleep Well” is similarly gorgeous, using slowly-played mellow chords to complement a beat that stops and starts at will.
Unfortunately, much of the middle of the album strays to the side of “boring”. Ironically enough, this is largely because of Nelson’s myriad attempts to change up the sound. The middle of Little Plastic Pilots is sprinkled with little two or three minute tracks that are too long and unique to work as transitions between the longer, more meditative works, but too short to establish much of their own identity. “The Grumpy Chinaman” is a bouncy number with no drums to speak of, just punchy little synth tones that create a silly little melody. “Fighting Action Figures”, while musically superior to “The Grumpy Chinaman”, is far too aggressive for a spot on this album with its quick beat and heavily flanged synth work. Even a full-length number like “A Courtyard Full of Sun”, despite the peace implicit in its title, clumsily tries to meld new wave synth work (and sampled birdies in the background) with a lo-fi static that sounds like an old record on an even older turntable. Add a hip-hop beat, and the end result is something that never achieves the calm it sets out for, settling merely for mild discomfort amongst overbearing prettiness.
Little Plastic Pilots ultimately achieves the dubious goal of being something that sounds a bit like Richard D. James’s trip-hop spinoff. It’s like Boards of Canada, except less challenging, and surely, that will be fine for some people—the production itself is, for the most part, just fine, and the melodies are usually pleasant, if not beautiful. Even so, given the pristine sound that Nelson achieves, it’s obvious that had he stuck to a consistent vision, he could have created something great, either a masterwork of danceable ambience or a chillout album for the ages. What he has managed, instead, is an album that will please some of the people some of the time, an album for a listener to perhaps be fond of, but never truly love.