Dntel: Human Voice

Producer Jimmy Tamborello puts together a pleasant but modest set of textured beats and ambient sounds for his fourth studio album.
Human Voice
Leaving / Stones Throw

Electronic musicians always seem fascinated by the humanity of music. Stilted drum machine rhythms and impossibly layered instruments read as cold, detached, and inhuman to plenty of outside observers, but the genre’s greatest auteurs make warm and intimate music, almost out of defiance. You can’t listen to Dntel and claim there is no human element, for instance. Every note of Human Voice, the producer’s fourth proper album under that name, is forged with Jimmy Tamborello’s personal touch, drawn with precision into a sonic patchwork. Meticulousness and attention to detail are often mistaken for frigid or mechanical calculation in the electronic music realm, but Tamborello, of course, rejects this. Skeptics ask producers to reconcile the differences between the analog world and the digital, the artificial and the organic, the man and the machine, but Tamborello, like all artists, does this on his terms. If the music sounds cold, it’s only because he constructed it to be that way.

As is true of all ambient music, listening to Human Voice can be as passive or active an experience as the listener makes it, but the greatest rewards come from becoming immersed in the sound, straining the mind to collect and situate every little hidden detail in the aural architecture. The music is never disorderly or rigorously systematic (as one might describe the producer’s pop-centric work with the Ben Gibbard-fronted Postal Service); Tamborello has instead made Human Voice primarily open and exploratory, without boundaries or regulations, and therefore more satisfactory with every small success.

The album opener, “Human Voice”, represents the primary sound of the whole set: rhythmic backdrops remain consistent and guide the track while synthesizers, organs, and manipulated vocal tracks twinkle in and out in bright flashes. Its delicate melodies break apart at a touch, but the constant thumping echo of the barely-there kick drum focuses the chaotic, abstract instrumentals to a steady point. This is followed-up by the more pounding and evolutionary “Fringes of Focus”, which, true to name, travels at light-speed from diminished ambiance to a sweeping, almost clubby instrumental. Tamborello is painting across all textures and styles on this album, but the way that tracks build on one another in layers, with melodies gradually swimming into the fold and dying out over time, gives it a feeling of consistency even when the producer’s method is so expansive.

The conventional structure of some of the songs (repeated sequences, layered harmonies, logical movement, etc.) serves as a pleasant juxtaposition with something like the pared-down “Bike Path”, which bears a striking resemblance to Kraftwerk’s sprawling arpeggios and steady rhythms. It’s on these most minimalist moments (see also: the somber beat-ballad “Foraya” and the bouncy album-closer “Ashby”) that Tamborello shines the brightest, proving he doesn’t need layers of sonics to make full use of the available space. The deep drone of the bass and sharp spark of the synthesizers on “Bike Path” are completely immersive on their own, moving rapidly and consistently around the aural landscape, surrounding the listener in texture. Tamborello has always been a master of rounded sound, making every single instrument, click, and blip feel full and nuanced, and he continues that tradition beautifully on Human Voice.

The worst thing one could say about the album is that it seems a little unambitious. Dntel is certainly not the first songwriter or producer to treat the human voice primarily as texture, nor is his method particularly revelatory (the method curiously only appears briefly in the mostly instrumental songs, and never in “Fringes of Focus”), but the product is truly electrifying nonetheless. Tamborello’s mutated electronics and instinctive composition is on full display on Human Voice, so even if it’s a little modest, interested listeners are sure to be touched by something on the record; for a genre so often criticized as cold and detached, that’s worth celebrating all on its own.

RATING 7 / 10
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