Pleasant music can be a beautiful thing. Melodies wrap around, harmonies intertwine with each other, vocals are flowing, and the beats are soft and enveloping. Pleasant music sounds very . . . well, pleasant. It certainly represents a challenger for a potential critic, however, because of the music being so nicely done. However, as nice as some music as done, it lacks a certain vitality that other pleasant or unpleasant music contains. On Joseph Malik’s newest offering Compost, we have a very pleasant record. Just as Alexander’s Cabanel’s Birth of Venus is pleasant, however, it is Eduoard Manet’s Olympia that we remember for its supposed ugliness and originality. Sure, Cabanel and Malik, and his production partner David Donnelly, are working within defined forms that are sure to please a large portion of people. But, by its very safeness and blandness the artwork and record should both be considered relative failures.
Malik has been well known as a DJ and club promoter — his Café Graffiti club night “Lizard Lounge” helped Graffiti win Club of the Year two of the three years that it was in existence. He has also been known to add vocals to different DJ releases in England over the years. Most of these releases, however, have been created for a club context and not necessarily home listening. This collaboration with David Donnelly, of Demusphere fame, seems to be directed toward home listening. The influences that have been listed on press releases include artists ranging from Miles Davis to John Lennon to Radiohead. Combined, these influences appear to have spawned something that is far less original and entertaining as these artists.
Instead, Malik and Donnelly mine the easy listening soul/jazz territory but place the proceedings within a loop-based context, stripping the music of any possible soul or emotional value that could be had be live playing. Arguments for the lack of vitality contained within electronic music because of the weird and unidentifiable sounds can be quelched by the appearance of guitar and live drums, surely. But the way that Donnelly goes about arranging them is by cutting them up into smaller pieces and looping them to his liking. While this mode of operation is easier to control, music wise it dulls the listeners feeling for what is coming next and forces the music to attempt to use a pop/dance sensibility of drilling the melodic themes into the listeners head.
On the opening track the pattern that will follow for the rest of the album becomes apparent. A lead guitar is introduced that plays an introduction until the song proper begins. An interesting false start, but one that does not work in the context of an album that is so obviously constructed. Malik’s voice soars over the mix of guitars, synthesized strings, bells, and a nice beat that is inherently 4/4 but very soft edged. Near the end of the song, titled “Melodies”, Malik’s voice begins to repeat the lyric “spirit of soul”. It appears as a background vocal, almost an afterthought, but when taking in context of the entire record it is a good marker for exactly what has transpired in the recording process. By co-opting the elements of soul and jazz that were considered great, Malik and Donnelly are merely retreading territory that does not need to be retread. If such a retread was needed, however, it is completely negated by the modern compositional style that Donnelly has used. Rather than the “spirit of soul”, we are dealing with the ghost of soul. And this is how the album operates as a ghostly rendition of more traditional and better performed forms.
This trend for rehash is further echoed on the third track, a cover version of the legendary Bill Wither’s “Take It All In and Check It All Out”. The rules of a cover version are to either pull of a faithful rendition to the original version or to present a new take on the original and add to its intentions. Malik and Donnelly fail on both of these accounts, hamming up the production and the vocal including a faux soulful emphasis. It is understandable that Withers’ could be considered an influence on the two and it can be seen that both artists enjoy the artists work, as evidence by its chose as the only cover song on the record, but it was both unnecessary and uncalled for, in the end.
The Compost label is boasting that the new decade is a time of “songs, human voices, soul, and expression”. Far from this, Joseph Malik and, more importantly, David Donnelly have done little to further Compost’s cause in a meaningful way on Diverse.