The young Scottish electronic music artist Ross Birchard has been making quite a name for himself under his alias Hudson Mohawke. The unassuming-looking Birchard (all black t-shirts and boyish countenance) built up his reputation through his teens (including winning the UK DMC DJ Championships at age 14), and proceeded to release several recordings before joining the Warp Records roster in 2007. After releasing the critically praised Polyfolk Dance EP earlier this year, Warp has now issued his debut full-length album, Butter, which has been in the works from the moment he signed with the label two years ago.
Butter certainly lives up to its name. The production glistens; at every turn there are snippets of sound that chime, shimmer, and glide. In spite of the jagged, choppy soundscapes present throughout the album, the various components flow together smoothly as part of carefully crafted compositions. While Butter‘s fascination with chaotic beats and sonic experimentalism fit right into the Warp aesthetic, the album is remarkably accessible, liable to inspire head-bobbing motions of approval. From the glossy keyboard strains and funky, Prince-like guitar of the opening “Shower Melody”, it’s clear that Birchard is out to make a straight-out R&B masterwork informed by experimental electronic music, instead of the other way around.
Butter is a consistent listen, displaying Birchard’s deft skill at arrangement. Birchard might twist and wring out riffs and beats to create jarring sensations, but uses his tools wisely, and he never stretches out an idea unnecessarily. Only one song, “Star Crackout”, runs past the four-minute mark. In addition to keeping the more experimental pieces to an appreciable length, this concise approach enhances the poppier material. While Birchard’s style is grounded in jungle and hip-hop influences (most noticeable in the rhythm tracks), he also overtly acknowledges the music’s roots in funk and soul.
As a result, in some spots Butter sounds like a sort of avant-R&B, recalling the more adventurous productions of late ’80s hitmakers like Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, or Teddy Riley: upbeat and danceable, but also daring. Apart from its explosive snare beats, “Rising 5” would not sound out of place on a setlist between Pebbles and Prince. The R&B focus is especially noticable on the track featuring guest vocalists Olivier Daysoul, Damfunk, and Nadrasonic. On “Joy Fantastic”, Olivier Daysoul sounds remarkably like Andre 3000 of Outkast, cooing and grooving with the distorted beats and chiming keyboard hooks. “Tell Me What You Want from Me” sounds for all the world like the 21st century reincarnation of New Jack swing, that most production-reliant of R&B subgenres, from its stuttering rhythms to Damfunk’s “groove me” lyrics.
Birchard mentioned in a recent interview that — the more experimental material aside — the music on Butter was more pop-oriented than his previous work. He explained that the work was less “beats-focused” and more concentrated on actual songs, noting that some of his earlier material was created with the intention of featuring vocal tracks, even if it was ultimately released without singing. Understandably, the tracks featuring guest vocalists are the most effective. That doesn’t mean the non-vocal tracks should be discounted. “ZOo00OOm” has such a fat, menacing hip-hop club beat that it would be a shame to demote to mere backing music. Several songs, such as “Fruit Touch” and “FUSE”, use snippets of voices instead of conventional singing in order to guide and color the compositions. The balance between pop and experimental isn’t always achieved; “Twistclip Loop” seems too insubstantial as simply a beat track, while “Allhot” sounds like a decent idea that hasn’t been finalized.
However, Birchard succeeds more than he fails on Butter. More than his emerging pop craft, what Birchard infuses his debut album with is a sense of fun and excitement. There’s no sense that Birchard is crafting beats as an intellectual exercise; rather, one can tell he’s quite enjoying himself, on occasion being quite cheeky in his work (note the reference to Purple Rain and the hilarious spoken dialogue in “Joy Fantastic”). Likewise, listeners should find themselves smiling to the album just as much as they find themselves wanting to dance to it. Butter is a solid album, and a promising portend of future triumphs from Warp’s newest beatmaster.