Before this review gets under way, I'd just like to point out that my reviewing of this record was blighted to an unnecessary extent by a copyright protection voiceover. Yes, I acknowledge the need to try and safeguard an album's integrity, especially prior to its release date, and yes, annoying sound effects accomplish this to some degree. However, having a robotic duck on qualuudes inform me that this was "a protected copy of Sharkey's Machine", twice in a row, several times per track, often obscuring a good percentage of a verse... sort it out, Babygrande. And on to the main feature.
Which, courtesy of producer/DJ newcomer Sharkey, is something of a mixed dish. In this brave new diamond age of hip-hop, a producer is as likely to MC, sing and play instruments on his tracks (all of which occurs here) as simply hook up some samples over a beat and maybe scratch a little. Polyvalence has become as respected as the signature approach of such producer titans as Dr Dre and DJ Premier. Sharkey stamps his name on a loose, rocky sound with electronic/dub flourishes, and his debut takes in "normal" hip-hop tracks, rock/rap/pop hybrids, DJ Shadow/RJD2-style instrumentals, and even some downtempo. He's worked with Eminem, Everlast and Rick Rubin, supported Wyclef Jean and the Black Eyed Peas, and is aided on the production front by Mario Caldato Jr. and Mickey Petralia, of Beastie Boys/Beck fame respectively. I'll spell it out: this is Hip-hop For White People.
Not that the calibre of the guesting MCs is any less colourful for that. Cannibal Ox crop up on lead single "Fuzz", which recalls their debut in as much as synth lines are provided by machinery either maliciously broken or just dying (hence the track title). Unfortunately, Vast Aire again fails to live up to his superb performances on that project, managing lines as embarrassing as "I've got a mechanical arm/ Breathe with a mechanical bomb/ That girl's got a mechanical thong." Oh, shut it. Thankfully Jean Grae, the best female MC in the game at the moment, kicks her trademark tales of anarchy and violence with typically fiery aplomb on "Summer in the City", in which all five burroughs erupt into scenes pitched somewhere between the L.A. riots and the apocalypse. Sharkey's shuffling beat and brass loop, topped off with bhangra-vocal snippets and cinematic mayhem sound effects like police cars and choppers, perfectly evoke rising excitement in the smothering heat. His twisted funk chords also buoy up "Phone Sex" nicely, a catchy, cheeky little number that boasts not only verses by another labelmate, Cherrywine (a.k.a. Butterfly of Digable Planets), but also a moreishly camped-up chorus. Fellow old school legends The Pharcyde add their cartoonish theatrics to single b-side "Snobird", but seem rather lost against a backdrop of mellow singing and flute that recalls "The Girl from Ipanema" Brazil. A pleasant, if unarresting, surprise.
Unlike the chorus of "Skateboarder's Blues", whose protagonist is rendered so apathetic by modern hip-hop that can no longer summon the energy to skate, but simply... masturbates to Internet porn. As with the other rap/rock tracks featuring Zooks, an able MC and member of Sharkey's group The Spark, a general air of fratboy humour permeates bluesy punk and ska backing -- not so much stoner rock as stoned-and-slightly-drunk guitar jams. It's harmless fun, even if "Meltdown" is basically a retread of "Phone Sex", falsetto chorus and all, with more guitar lines and riffing. Yet the results are neither musically innovative, post-N.E.R.D., nor are they particularly good songs in their own right.
Elsewhere there's evidence that Sharkey's been listening to Zero 7, with ethereal walls of synth vapour and muted horns on "Here We Are", the supine female vocals and loose drum patterns of "Something's Got to Give" and the strung-out, lost in space vibe of hidden track "All Good Things in Good Time". Their very titles evoke Simple Things. Much more idiosyncratic (and interesting) are his instrumental hip-hop collages: "If It Fits" starts like a System of a Down intro before opening up into some pretty fretwork and a distorted rubber squeal of a scratch over a raw garage break, whilst "Slo-mo in the Grotto" floats disembodied voices over echoing effects and circular guitar plucking.
Sharkey's Machine obviously wants to be loved for its ability to grab, mix and provide voices and sounds from all over the map -- even Black Album Jay-Z gets sampled as a track intro. The problem is that its musical cohesion is never matched by an agenda or message; that its colourful smorgasbord, whilst divertingly varied, lacks anything truly filling. Whilst the music on offer here is average at worst, and a nifty showcase for zany diagonal thinking, Sharkey's producer album lacks the punch and personality of some of his guests. If he decides what he really wants to get his teeth into (guitar-led urban pop, I hope) and finds something personal as well as witty to say, he could go a long way. In the meantime, the best new producer friend of the diamond age... well, how about some "girls, girls, girls" behind the boards? Any takers?