California’s resident electro DJ/producer Alfred Darlington, known musically as Daedelus, does a great many things on his 2011 release Bespoke. Getting a lot done is one thing and is no easy feat. So where Bespoke might understandably be criticized in spots for lacking listener accessibility, it’s important to remember that the trade off for this is an album brimming with ideas. Plus, the quantity of what Daedelus packs into Bespoke is made more remarkable by the producer’s ability to do so much at once. Such elements as sounds, moods and vocal arrangements could have been worked out in a more orderly fashion, one after the other in some places or, in the extreme, isolated and revamped as foundations to entirely new compositions. That, no doubt, would have resulted in an easier listen, from the standpoint of instant recognition and resonance. Instead, Daedelus piles it on — sounds, movements, moods, vocals and all manner of odds and ends — into densely layered configurations that are at once thick and ambient. Additionally, this release employs live instrumentation in a way that adds a bit of warmth to the proceedings.
The album title itself speaks to the artist’s musical approach, as the term “bespoke” signifies something custom-made, often in connection with clothing. That Daedelus is known for his preoccupation with Victorian era clothes worms its way into the make and feel of this release. Also, Daedelus has referred to the album title as an approach to life. Individual song titles suggest an album concept built around the custom fit, as songs called “Tailor Made”, “Sew, Darn, Mend”, “Penny Loafers”, “Suit Yourself” and “French Cuffs” amble and rumble across Bepoke‘s 10 full selections, which omits the 41 minute outro “Nightcap”. The question for the listener, though, is not whether the album’s concept, or even its execution, exudes the custom fit and design connoted by the title. No, the real question is: Who is the target audience for this design? Is the music custom fit for the listener or the artist himself? As much as we might be tempted to answer, “For both”, the results seem tailored to Daedelus’s indulgences and idiosyncrasies.
What we find is an album of immense and varied textures. Seven of Bespoke‘s 11 tracks include guest vocals, but even those vocals operate as much for mood and atmosphere as for lyrical content. The guests include Milosh’s soothing charm; Inara George of The Bird & the Bee; a surprisingly satisfying emcee-turned-vocalist move from Busdriver; Bilal, offering his striking blend of soul, jazz and R&B; smooth and soul-laden chanteuse, Kelela Mizanekristos; and Will Wiesenfeld, the producer/songwriter known as Baths. In many ways, these first-rate vocal performances become instruments themselves in Bespoke‘s compositions, with the arrangements, samples and overdubs layering vocals upon vocals, intertwining foreground with background. Yet, the vocals seem never to mesh completely with the music, which is shaped and bent with frenetic percussion and whirlpools of synthesizer. We’ll find plenty of noise, distortion and effects to fill any lingering hopes of remaining negative space. The songs don’t feel cluttered, but they do sound busy, unrelenting and full. Above the buzzing and clattering backdrops sit the vocals, often alluding to jazz balladry, Technicolor musicals and swing. It’s possible that the flaw here is not the striking contrast between classic vocal styling and electronic — actually, that’s part of the intrigue. Rather, the flaw might reside in the overuse of percussion, with the off-kilter rhythms undermining established song structure and otherwise catchy grooves.
It’s worth noting, however, that the album succeeds in presenting a relatively engaging song cycle. What Daedelus does well here is give each song a set of movements, and then he rifles through those movements before restarting the cycle. In this way, he avoids the monotony of a single loop, not to mention traditional bridges and progressions for the choruses. In “Penny Loafers”, Inara George’s foreboding lyrics (“Give you an inch in between us / you took a mile for yourself”) and her seemingly resigned delivery are about as close as the album comes to a typical chorus. She’s great, as is the music, but the two seem a mismatch. There is a similar disconnection in “French Cuffs”, featuring Baths.
The three full instrumental numbers fall into this sort of mismatch as well, with the melodic touches acting in place of vocals and seeming at odds with the flooded soundscape. “Sew, Darn, Mend” is the more ornate and orchestral of the instrumentals. “Suit Yourself” espouses the loveliest melody. “Slowercase D” is the moodiest.
The eighth track, “In Tatters”, nearly brings every idea together in terms of rhythm, vocal performance and mood. Here, Kelela Mizanekristos’s singing is soulful, poignant and perfectly vulnerable over the percussion’s alternate booms and crashes on the downbeats. Other delights are Bilal’s ability to hold his own against an onslaught of instrumentation in “Overwhelmed”. The swampy, buzzing wall of sound threatens to flood Bilal’s controlled delivery, but he navigates the tide and seems all the better for the wear. I just wish the song didn’t fade, as I’d love to hear where it goes.
Busdriver, in “What Can You Do”, and Amir Yaghmai (as Young Dad), in “One and Lonely”, convincingly evoke desolation amid feverish drum rolls. In both instances, the vocal layering is there, as is the arguable overkill on percussion. Busdriver’s work is most intriguing, with his slightly nasally, echoed timbre, while the cadence of the song’s “What can you do for me” chant recalls — unintentionally, I’m convinced — the “What can I do for you” refrain of the Final Fantasy X-2 videogame song “Real Emotion”. When Busdriver sings, “We are not the sum of our parts”, we could be hearing a revelation about the album itself. Bespoke is a study in contrast, a series of juxtapositions. It’s all about dissonance and musical friction in lieu of harmony and ease. It is not the sum of its parts — it’s about the individual parts themselves.