Switched On – Bonobo: Fragments (Ninja Tune)

bonobo

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first album from Bonobo in five years. Simon Green – whose pseudonym this is – describes his new record as the most emotionally intense record that he has ever had to make. As with previous releases he takes a number of guest vocalists with him on the journey, dovetailing those tracks with instrumentals.

What’s the music like?

Familiar. If you have heard Bonobo’s music before, the manner of its construction on Fragments will tick a number of boxes. Beautifully orchestrated, the instrumentals work well with the broken beats that Green employs, which have more power and depth this time.

The vocal guests complement his sensitive work with some meaningful lyrics. There are strong contributions from Joji, Kadhja Bonet, Jamila Woods and O’Flynn, but pick of the turns is from Jordan Rakei, who lends a powerful tug to the heartstrings on Shadows.

The thicker set grooves may be welcome, but does the familiarity of Bonobo’s sound breed contempt? Certainly the chopped up vocals on Age Of Phase feel familiar, very much a continuation of what Bonobo does best. Rosewood is also a characteristically moody instrumental with vocal snippets, though Otomo is more acidic, dropping a heavy set beat. On the calmer side the shuffling beats of the comforting Closer work well, while the silvery strings to close out Tides are reminiscent of Ravel. Elysian also has alluring strings, especially when teamed with a harp.

Does it all work?

It does, but the feeling persists that this is music we have heard before – and possibly in more meaningful colours. In spite of the emotion invested by Green the music does feel grey at times. That may seem harsh on Bonobo, for the music is beautifully constructed and executed, but it is more than a little downbeat in a way we have experienced before.

Is it recommended?

It is for Bonobo devotees, as there are some good moments here – and especially the Jordan Rakei contribution – but for those new to his sound an album from earlier in his output, such as Black Sands, is arguably the best place to start.

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Switched On – Park Hye Jin: Before I Die (Ninja Tune)

park-hye-jin

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Park Hye Jin releases her first album on Ninja Tune, the culmination of a whirlwind couple of years for the South Korean. Now based in Los Angeles, she has built up a strong reputation for original electronic music through collaborations with Blood Orange, Nosaj Thing and Clams Casino & Take A Daytrip – their track Y Don’t U being especially successful.

Perhaps her biggest calling card yet however is the track Like this, caught by BBC Radio 1 and 6 Music and chosen for the soundtrack of FIFA 2021. It is one of the many reasons Before I Die is so highly anticipated.

What’s the music like?

Extremely varied. Pigeon holes don’t exist with Park Hye Jin around, for she can effortlessly turn her hand to so many styles, reflecting the human condition through a wide range of moods. While that might sound like a lazy observation, few artists can rise to this challenge with such infectious confidence.

She moves from the deadpan rap of Never Give Up to the direct come-on of Can I Get Your Number, from down tempo R&B numbers like the slightly warped Sunday ASAP to big dancefloor gunners such as Hey, Hey, Hey. Sometimes the lyrics involve straight-to-camera honesty, like I Need You, which is dressed with an old-style piano and briefly drenched in nostalgia.

This direct approach runs through the album, which is highly entertaining, often funny, sometimes tender – but almost always hitting the mark with its sharp riffing and clever beatmaking.

Does it all work?

It does. Before I Die is over in a flash, with many of the tracks well under three minutes – showing Hye Jin’s ‘all killer and no filler’ approach, which works really well. In the course of the 15 episodes you really feel like you get to know her as a person, what makes her tick and what pisses her off, and to end with the level-headed i jus wanna be happy is right on the money.

Is it recommended?

It is. Park Hye Jin’s original approach takes dance music back to its first principles, working through an often thrilling range of beats and emotions. She is without question an artist to watch.

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On Record – Oliver Patrice Weder: The Pool Project (SA Recordings)

oliver-patrice-weder

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

It is helpful to know where The Pool Project was recorded. Oliver Patrice Weder, a Swiss composer residing in Spain, recorded the album with friends in a pool house, surrounded by an evergreen oak tree forest, just outside of Madrid.

Weder has an intriguing musical history, channeling his love for The Doors‘ keyboard-based work into more classical and jazz-orientated work. Keeping this open musical policy, he sketched the music for The Pool Project in this restful area, before bringing friends in to contribute. The instrumentation speaks more of jazz, including voices, alto flute, bass clarinet and percussion, with Weder himself providing keyboards and electronics.

Weder’s own company Spitfire Audio are simultaneously releasing a sound library, giving composers and producers the opportunity to manipulate the sounds from the album for their own purposes. The toolkit offers an extension of these sounds, capturing the acoustics of the pool house, and is offered as an easy-to-use plug-in.

What’s the music like?

As restful as can be. The lapping of the water and the soft, Satie-like piano loop used in Rainbow Fish are indications of the pace at which Weder is going to operate. Satie is a good point of reference, for this piece operates along the line and rhythmic cadence of his Gymnopédies, developing its ideas subtly.

Weder uses imaginative orchestration to allow his ideas to bloom. The winsome bass clarinet in Lala, or the mellow alto flute on Rainbow Fish are really nice touches, as is the older, slightly untempered quality he gives to the piano, with its soft undercurrents of melody. This gives the chromatic line on Encina a displaced quality, also adding a mellow tone to the soft oscillations of Peter.

Forest Glade bubbles with life, introducing a steady but unobtrusive beat to go with its softly reverberating phrases, secured from a delayed Wurlitzer electric piano.

Does it all work?

It does. Everything about this meditation is unforced, Weder’s ideas allowed to pursue a naturally evolving path until they come to rest. Sometimes the listener is invited to sit back and enjoy the lightly applied jazz flavourings to the melodies, but then on occasion Weder complements the slow, quiet music with pockets of reviving energy.

The guest instrumentalists pitch their contributions just right, and deserve to be credited – Clara Gallardo on fulsome but mellow alto flute, while Joaquín Sánchez Gil moves from light meanderings on Peter to more outright, jazz-influenced work on Lala. Guitarist David del Cerro Turner frames the closing Distant Island beautifully, while percussionist Juan Espiga brings the necessary movement to Forest Glade.

Is it recommended?

It is. The Pool Project is a beautifully executed piece of communal meditation, its simple phrases blossoming into restful tableaus of music.

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On Record – Jordan Rakei: What We Call Life (Ninja Tune)

jordan-rakei

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Jordan Rakei is hitting a rich vein of form and productivity in his musical life. What We Call Life, though, is his most meaningful and personal album to date. It is an exploration of his experiences during therapy, and in particular ‘positive psychology’. In this deeply personal exercise he learned a lot about himself, his behaviour patterns and anxiety triggers, and how his marriage compares to that of his own parents.

Not the average material for a soulful singer – but Rakei takes it as the basis for a profound look at his own life.

What’s the music like?

Perhaps not surprisingly, What We Call Life is deeply expressive. Yet Jordan Rakei manages to avoid any charges of self-obsession that could be levelled at him. Instead, he makes every situation and experience very relatable, and he does that through his own voice – which is a subtly powerful instrument and communicator.

His words are very easy to follow but the song structures really help his cause, as does the instrumentation. The string arrangements are beautifully managed, the slightly skewed beats with hints of funk and / or soul at every turn, the delivery in a conversational style – all these aspects of his style add extra authenticity and authority.

The songs are deeply considered – and even the bigger structures like Brace take their time but leave their mark too. The title track is especially impressive, but Rakei’s most vulnerable moments – Clouds, Send My Love and Illusion – are his most revealing.

Does it all work?

Yes. With each album Jordan Rakei’s authority grows, and this one is the most consistent yet. Measured but heartfelt, each of What We Call Life’s songs is both believable and relatable.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. Few singers could match his poise and personal style at the moment, and it is all the more impressive given that no singers sound like Jordan Rakei at the moment. He is a serious singer, but he is a compelling one too.

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Switched On – DJ Food: Kaleidoscope Companion (Ninja Tune)

dj-food-kaleidoscope

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Strictly Kev and PC, the men behind DJ Food, can reveal just how productively they spent last year’s lockdown. Aware that it marked two decades since the release of Kaleidoscope, when DJ Food was a mysterious incarnation conceived by Ninja Tune founders Coldcut, the two rounded up music from their archives of the recording sessions. To their surprise the volume and quality of the material was such that Kaleidoscope Companion became possible. It is a collection of unreleased tracks, remixes and alternate versions, all closely related to the album but structured in such a way that a whole new opus has been created. Kev explains it best, as ‘not a new DJ Food album’, more ‘an old one that never was’.

What’s the music like?

Given that this electronic music is essentially 20 years old, Kaleidoscope Companion could have been written yesterday. That says much for the staying power of DJ Food, and how inventive the beats and sound pictures were in the year they were released. Here the quality of the compositions is immediately evident.

Take Skylark, exposed as a mini-masterpiece. With the crackling of the outdoors effectively evoked, an elastic bass line is established before a stringed instrument climbs through the textures and floats on the air effortlessly.

The Crow (Slow) is one of the welcome alternate versions, stretching its material into a gorgeous panoramic view that could easily last double the length it is given here. See Saw also offers reassuringly thick textures of an ambient persuasion, as does the closing Boohoo, with a serene string line that segues into softly humourous pitch bends at the end.

There are elements of spatial jazz here. Hip Operation (great title!) is an active story, building with white noise beats and detective-drama trumpets. Stealth, an alternative version of the Gentle Cruelty remix of The Ageing Young Rebel, is a nocturnal scene with a mellow but quite mournful flute tone. Its spoken word vocal, telling of self-obsession, is remarkably prescient for today’s times. The Rook + Type 3 takes a more cinematic turn, with another flexible bass and brief figures from strings and clarinet, while offbeat percussion flickers and flares in the background.

The collection’s centrepiece is Quadraplex (A Trip to the Galactic Centre), which starts without beats but then wanders seemingly into the middle of a clearing and a meditation in full swing, with thrumming percussion and a series of spatial effects. Blended from several different takes, it is a mesmerising piece of work.

Does it all work?

It does. The structure of Kaleidoscope Companion has been carefully thought through, and the positioning of Quadraplex in the middle splits the collection into three parts, with a meditative quarter of an hour at its heart.

The analogue clicks and crackles around the edges of many of the tracks are welcome, and the refusal of the music to comply to stricter digital confines serves it well too.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you listened to this without knowing the author, you would bookmark it as a talent to keep an eye on, a source of new and exciting electronica. The fact that it is a companion to an already excellent and revered album only heightens the appeal, showing just how durable electronic music has proved to be. Fans of the Ninja Tune label will love it.

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