Stones Throw and Leaving Records team up for one of the most unique and experimental albums in recent memory. But do the fiercely independent artists found within have what it takes to hang with the big boys?
Being a critic, one of the hardest things for me to do is admit that I just "don't get" certain records. As somebody who spends the majority of his time listening to every genre imaginable, it really blindsides me when I hear a record I flat out don't enjoy. This is especially true when it comes to me via a record label like Stones Throw, who has released some of my all time favorite projects and who is known for their quality music. Sadly I feel like Dual Form is just one of those records. It's important to note that Stones Throw is really only acting as a distributor for this project. The artist featured here actually hail from an even smaller indie label known simply as Leaving Records. Like Stones Throw, Leaving Records is also based out of Los Angeles, and the company started as a very DIY, grassroots project. The label is probably most well known for releasing the majority of its projects in cassette tape form, and its "genre be damned, good music is good music" attitude.
Now, being perfectly honest, before this review I had no idea who this company or any of its artists were. Maybe I'm just growing more and more out of the loop the older I get, but somehow they had all but eluded me. Still, I loved the idea of a label putting out whatever music they deemed to be dope, and not having any higher ups to answer to is sure to result in some absolutely off the wall, creative music. To a certain extend it does. Creativity doesn't always equate to quality though, and more often than not I feel like maybe this was just a bit too far outside of my comfort zone. For the most part this instrumental heavy project doesn't deviate too far from what Stones Throw has been doing for years. The quirky samples, the insane drumming, the healthy doses of oddball sound effects, it's all here and accounted for. Where things do tend to differentiate themselves though is in the overall quality of the songs as a whole. The basic outlines of the tracks are all fine and good, but often times it's that one added instrument or sample that completely derails the whole experience.
Let's take the very first track for example. "Untitled" (also produced by an "Untitled" producer, though perhaps that's his name?) features two main instruments: the drums and the piano. Now, taken separately both sound superb. The drumming is frantic and high energy, not unlike something you would hear from Stones Throw mainstay Madlib on any one of his numerous jazz projects, and the piano is simple and elegant, almost hauntingly sad in a way. What happens though is they mash these two sounds together for something that sounds like a complete and utter mess, robbing both instruments of their emotion impact. This seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout the album, as the various artists seemingly go out of their way to lay out these beautiful instrumentals, only to then veer off course and undo all the harmony within the rest of the track. Part of me understands that, for all intents and purposes, this is a counter-culture label releasing fiercely independent music, and that having your definitions of what you consider is, or isn't beautiful or enjoyable music challenged comes with the territory. Still, I can't help but feel that some truly inspired music is being lost to this creative process.
"Into the Night" is one of the few vocal tracks here, and while it does rank as one of the more enjoyable songs, the way the record is mixed to sound like it's fading in and out of your speakers (think along the lines of hearing a warped vinyl record play where everything is just ever so slightly off) makes it somewhat grating on the ears. "Lions Dream" lives up to its name with its dreamy piano, but the random sound effects layered on top overpower the track and make it more annoying than anything else. "Labelle Gross" is an enjoyable track, but suffers from the same exact poor mixing that killed "Into the Night". The list of complaints goes on and on, and while most of the time it is silly little things, it adds up rather quickly. I'm sure these songs were released and sound the way they do for a reason. Maybe it's the way the hardcore fans prefer to hear their music, but speaking for myself, I couldn't stand it.
Thankfully as we get closer to the second half of the record things really pick up, and more often than not the "little things" melted away and I found myself truly enjoying the music. "You & Me Both (Arthur Russel live tribute)" by Julia Holter is absolutely stunning, and the bootleg sound quality actually adds to the song’s charm. From here the album picks up a considerable amount of steam, and while not all the remaining tracks are winners, the majority of them all offer something pretty special. "Beacon" is sure to appeal to Stones Throws hip hop fan base with its impressive rapping by MC Set, and "Purple Hay" will most likely please the blues/rock revivalist that swear by the Black Keys. "Sadnis" more than lives up to its name with its wonderfully dreary atmosphere, and "Atimo" can be best described as a soundtrack to your dreams. There are still a few duds sprinkled throughout, namely the drums on "Peace" completely kill the wonderful vibe, but for the most part the record finished up without any offensively bad songs, though I still found the poor mixing to be distracting.
The variety of music and experimentation here is commendable, and for the most part this eclectic album will have a little something for most everyone. But in trying to create as diverse a sound as possible, I personally feel they failed in the overall quality control. It feels like a lot of these songs were released just because they were what were available, and not because they were the best the label and artist had to offer. There are some gems here, and a lot of these relativity unknown artist show massive amounts of potential, but without somebody with a bit more experience to help them polish and refine their craft, they make a slew of amateur mistakes that effectively blemish this otherwise exciting record. Still, it would be easy to imagine that one of these up-and-comers could very well be the next big thing in the indie scene, even if this isn't the album that makes their career.