Music

13 & God: Men of Station/Soft Atlas

Stefan Braidwood

America's Themselves take on Germany's The Notwist in potential indie postgenre meltdown. Results frustratingly accessible and catchy; shared philosophy of quality prevails.


13 & God

Men of Station/Soft Atlas

Label: Alien Transistor
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2005-04-18
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iTunes

One of the more trenchant (if only superficially witty) moments of feedback I received from a little article I wrote last year for my ol' alma 'Matters was buried amongst a slew of vitriol on an obscure message board, where some people had taken issue at my race-related comments regarding hip-hop and consequently a full-blown debate on the nature of racism had erupted. Faced with so much anger intellectual high-horsing about, one poster quipped: "Hey, does no-one else listen to hip-hop just 'cos it sounds good?"

Many people have little time to spare for Anticon's experimental vision of what "sounds good" in hip-hop, preferring to lump strangely-voiced people talking in some bizarre poetic dialect of MCing over bleak beats in strange time signatures under the satisfyingly belittling moniker nerd rap before heading off down the club. None more white, none more indie, Anticon's troops have nevertheless made good ground since the label's inception; splitting up, becoming fully-formed musical personalities in their own right and now tunnelling gradually back into hip-hop's consciousness from a variety of angles. Whilst he can't lay claim to the sympatico Everyman wryness of a Buck 65 (or former Anticon playmate Slug), Doseone has been phenomenally busy, spawning collaborations and side-projects (cLOUDDEAD, themselves, Subtle) at a rate that may soon introduce the prefix "Over" to his tag even amongst his growing horde of admirers (of which I count myself one).

On this project he spearheads half of a supergroup collaboration between themselves (himself, DJ/producer Jel and keyboard player Dax, both also in Subtle) and German glitchpop icons The Notwist. Never having really succumbed to their charms, I awaited to see what this crossbreeding of ingenious randomness and charming, careful methodology would produce with optimism, curiosity and a little trepidation (would it be an indie press love-in/orgy with little satisfying weight to show for itself?).

The twin warheads of this pre-emptive double A-side are split vocally between the 'twist boys and Dose, one apiece; yet although there is no vocal presence shared there are discreet signs that instrumentally things are less discrete. "Men of Station" starts with a wistful little piano motif that gradually broadens itself until lifted by thrumming bass and a snapping break into drifting synthpop, as one of the Notwist recites "We are men of station/we are troubled men just the same/but we're not as hell as you..." mantra-like in a flawless yet curiously deadened manner, like a bored angel. Quite what this is supposed to mean I have no clue, but the tune and refrain are a total bastard to get out of your brain and the track ends in melancholy, lambent beauty that is only increased by its participants seeming indifference. Playing to synthpop's strengths, then.

"Soft Atlas" is a completely different kettle of fish, Doseone initally delivering spoken word seemingly about the birth of ideas ("Imagine your ghost blowing up globes, tightening them off with an S-C clamp, and then sending them down, through the clouds, onto empty department store shelves") in that priceless voice of his, his timbre somewhere between the look in an inquisitive mouse's eyes and being brushed lightly by a feather; bemused, curious, strange, comforting. The tentative piano notes once more require the entry of a beat to swing things into more dynamic proceedings; Dose enforcing rhythm on his words for a more conventional rap sequence before sliding apart into a circle chant of his selves, mapping the conceptual route of his own existence: "Without a universal law/there is no gravity/without no gravity there is no atmosphere/without no atmosphere there is no chance of life/and with no chance of life/I/don't/ex-ist", which on screen sounds horribly wordy and Jonathan Safran Foer-esque in its pointless author-cancelling fantasising. However, aurally it becomes a vulnerably grateful reflection on mortality, saddeningly affecting in a way that is more akin to the philosophising of Le Petit Prince. The X being planted on Doseone's soft atlas (his consciousness?) to indicate his location is, you feel, sure to be marked by a kiss.

As you may have worked out by now, I'm trying to convey that this is music that, perhaps despite its brainy indie weirdness, just sounds really good. Certainly this is plaintive and melodic, muscially subtle whilst remaining simple and catchy, sad yet not depressed, aglow but not annoyingly upbeat. You also get two bonus cuts, a remix of album track "Into the Trees" by fellow Ants why? and Alias -- OK, if you enjoy people talking about learning "to respect the colour yellow" on "four walls a day", but I haven't heard the original yet so I can't really judge -- and a fantastic dual remix of the A sides by little-known freaknik Hrvatski, who puns their names in two different languages before turning "A Soft Atlas" into a short anthem for a fallen superhero and whizzing "Men Of Station" off into joyous breakbeat/d&b roller territory on the wings of an autoharp, breaks and basslines rippling like "Stem"-era DJ Shadow on E. Magnifico!

So basically this is the first time in history I'm going to recommend someone buy a single, double A or nay. Perhaps I should take this opportunity to point out the rather snappy cover art, which sports two cut-out-n-keep skull designs that, very Freudian punnily, resemble testicles. You just know Dose, with his twin fascinations with suicide and masturbation, was involved with this somehow. If the LP is as good throughout as the best moments here, it'll be one of the albums of the year. If not, this'll remain great.

Oh, and I've just heard that Dax is currently in a rehabilitation institute, so everyone who wishes him well should head over to www.daxpierson.com and let him know. Peace.

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