Bonobo: Animal Magic

Animal Magic
Ninja Tune

Animal Magic is the debut effort of Brighton producer Simon Green, a.k.a. Bonobo, but it is not in fact a new release. It’s already reached ears over in the UK through the Tru Thoughts label, but now Green is signed on with the big boys at Ninja Tune. There will be a new Bonobo release in 2002, but in the meantime Animal Magic is being re-released to a worldwide audience. This is definitely a good thing, because Bonobo’s debut is a lovely little exercise in chill music, with Green blending sampled breakbeats, pad sounds, jazzy live instrumentation and naked emotion to create a sound all his own. Too often downtempo electronic music wanders into EZ-listening terrain, but Animal Magic has enough underlying feeling and intelligent arrangements to keep any listener’s interest.

Though technically an electronic artist, Bonobo uses sampling and live playing in such a way that he often sounds more like the leader of some tripped-out jam band, rather than a UK whiz kid playing at home with computers (the vocal snippet announcing “ladies and gentleman, you are about to hear a medley”, on the intro track underscores this nicely). In this sense, Bonobo might remind some folks of DJ Shadow, which is damn fine company for anyone to keep, though the dubbed-out drums and vocals may owe something to the likes of Herbaliser. And though there is a definite live feel, Green never tries to hide the electronic aspect of his music, which is showcased in the smooth breakbeat loops, synth sounds, and aforementioned dub effects.

This is electronic music that draws on live playing, rather than trying to imitate it. Green relies heavily on a rather narrow range of traditional instruments, primarily the trumpet and piano, but he uses them in such a way that Animal Magic never feels tiresome or recycled. Again, this is because Bonobo doesn’t try to imitate some live style of music, like say, jazz. Instead he combines his live playing and electronic production to create his own style, which is something like funky, breakbeat-driven lounge music with a whole lot of emotional ambiance.

“Sleepy Seven” is the first full-length piece on Animal Magic, and sets a nice tone with a somber piano, quick and funky bass, and filtered childlike vocals that pop up periodically throughout the album. But it’s with “Dinosaurs”, the third track, that you really get to the meat. One of the stronger songs on Animal Magic, “Dinosaurs” plunks you in the middle of a drugged-out carnival, with dramatic pads, creeping piano chords, and a lazy trumpet that washes over you like an overwhelming, borderline bad hallucinogenic trip. From here, Green slowly eases into increasingly more blunted, mellow terrain, as the emphasis shifts from punchy breakbeats to increasingly stranger instrumentals and simpler, dubbed-out beats.

There’s “Kota”, with its steady kick drum and sorrowful but catchy acoustic guitar, and the sitar-driven “Terrapin”. Of course, sitars are often employed when someone wants to turn up the Trippy Factor, but it works here. The shift away from more traditional instruments is a nice break, and the bizarre childlike vocals (much like the vocal on “Sleepy Seven”) almost lend it an Aphex Twin quality. But Green shows he can do more than create trippy tracks with “The Plug”, a song that practically screams heartbreak and loss, even if you can’t figure out what the hell the forlorn male vocal is actually saying. As with other sad, dreamy pieces on the album, such as “Sleepy Seven” and “Kota”, there’s almost a Moby-like vibe going on. Which is a good thing. It’s nice to be reminded that chill music can have some emotional substance too.

Bonobo does start to go a bit astray on the seventh track, “Shadowtricks”. Though it’s a nice lullaby, and the vocal and trumpet interlude (“You will find that every time you listen to this recording you will relax even . . . and even . . .”) are a great touch, it starts to feel like Animal Magic is drifting a bit far into sleepy stonerland. Chilling out is great, but I don’t want to be put to sleep. Green does pick the tempo up a bit more with “Gyspy” and “Sugar Rhyme”, but both these simple breakbeat pieces feel insubstantial compared to the earlier works on the album. However one may feel about these sleepier pieces, it’s a wise choice on Green’s part to close with “Silver”, a more uptempo track driven by some excellent breakbeats and a funky mofo trumpet. In arranging the album this way, Bonobo does a nice job of leading the listener into increasingly more mellow territory, and then gently guiding one back out.

As a result, Animal Magic may be very chill, but it’s always moving along nicely. Another reason Animal Magic moves so well is that Green has an ear for keeping his tracks just the right length. None of the songs goes much over four minutes, and that’s something a lot of producers could learn from. This brisk movement keeps the mellow tracks from seeming too dragged out, and even the weaker pieces remain enjoyable enough as a result. Now if some of these songs were seven minutes long…yikes!

Yours truly is certainly piling on plenty of props to Mr. Green, but I’ve got one other thing to say: kudos to the trumpet, and thank God there’s no saxophone. A lot of electronic producers (especially drum’n’ bass folks) really have a thing for the sax, and frankly it lends too many tracks a sort of cheesy porno quality. The trumpet, on the other hand, works beautifully with electronic music. I’m definitely eager to see what new sounds Bonobo will come up with on his sophomore release. Just as long as he doesn’t ditch the trumpet.