2008 is but a distant memory. For those who arrived to the Jamie Lidell soiree that year via Jim, expect to receive a different set of party favors when approaching Compass, the latest effort by the New York-based beat boxing chameleon. Jamie Lidell reorients the prism that illuminated songs like “Another Day” and “Where’d You Go” on his last album. In lieu of the contemporary appropriation of ’60s sensibilities that drew many listeners to Jim, Lidell toils with a more progressive strand of electro-psychedelic soul on his first release of the new decade.
“Compass” is an appropriate album title. If there is an underlying theme that unites the 14 tracks therein contained, it’s sonic exploration. Jamie Lidell goes deep into a wilderness of sound with a dream squad of musicians, producers, and writers that include Feist, Beck, Nikka Costa, Gonzales, Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear), and Pat Sansone (Wilco). It’s as if each individual momentarily wanders off from the pack and returns with their own discovery to embellish any given song.
“Completely Exposed” is a suitable introduction to the album and indicates the kind of path Lidell has laid out for listeners. (With the exception of three co-writing credits, Lidell wrote and produced the entire album.) “I don’t want to be closed but opening up has left me completely exposed,” Jamie Lidell sings on the opening cut. Video game artillery opens fire on Lidell, aiming directly at his exposed mental and emotional state of mind. Other such details, like the track’s glistening keyboard motif, nest in the track and crack open once the slow, thump-de-thump beat kicks in.
Even with a slow-burning soul side like “She Needs Me”, the beats veer towards industrial strength (or a “sweet boom”, to borrow a phrase from Lidell) on Compass. Lidell testifies his devotion to a lover over a groove that flows luxuriously like molasses and glows with the golden hue of early morning. Horns and woodwinds decorate the slow churning grind of the rhythm.
“Say what James?” a voice queries on “Enough’s Enough”. The song is a sweet slice of ear candy that spotlights the dexterity of the James in question — James Gadson. His work on drums and percussion creates one of the album’s most infectious tracks. While he goes to work, Chris Taylor’s flute flutters through a parade of sounds and Nikka Costa chirps and yelps in the background. Just under three minutes, it’s a compulsively listenable song.
Lidell deftly changes the needle on the compass from one track to the next. “Coma Chameleon”, notable for its brief outbursts of horns, creates a rather foreboding atmosphere. Penned with Beck, Lidell intones the album’s most clever set of lyrics with stinging ferocity: “Coma chameleon, if you ever wake up, you will see what you have done”. Abrupt key changes keep the listener guessing during the neat two minutes of “Gypsy Blood” while “You are Waking”, a thunderous barnstormer, sounds like a go-go dancer’s routine gone awry.
However, there are moments when the sheer abundance of sound repels more than attracts. “Now my cup is overflowing,” Lidell sings on “Completely Exposed”, an accurate visual correlation to a few songs that overwhelm even a strong vocalist and conceptualist like Lidell. The dense properties of “Big Drift”, which plods along for an interminable five minutes, might be truthful to the inner landscape of the singer but that doesn’t make it an experience listeners need to endure more than a couple of times.
Similarly, the title track ventures down a path that leads to some murky places that need not but a few listens. Lidell sounds at his most vulnerable on the album during the song’s introduction. His voice quivers over acoustic guitar accompaniment as a wave of percussion builds from underneath and overtakes the track. Background voices speak in tongues before the song returns briefly to the contemplative tone of the acoustic introduction. The final third of the song culminates in a kitchen-sink finale, replete with Lidell’s stream-of-consciousness recitation.
Even if such song structures are less conventional and more of an acquired taste than those found on Jim, there is a continuity between the two albums that will satisfy both devoted and new fans alike. However, the best way to appreciate Compass is to follow the bread crumbs Jamie Lidell leaves on the trail and be prepared for anything. Somewhere, you’ll discover a pot of gold just for you.