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New Lines

By David King

Massive Attack

Heligoland

Britain’s trip-hop messiahs have gotten a lot of guff over the years since releasing their first three, universally praised albums. On 1991’s Blue Lines, the trio taught the world how hip-hop and electronica and rock could chill together; for Protection, as other bands figured out the old formula, they switched things up and got even more chill. On 1998’s Mezzanine, Massive Attack got dark, gritty and heavy. But by 2003’s 100th Window, the group (now a duo) found themselves accused of trying to recapture what they had done in the past. So for their latest release, Heligoland, they just did what they’ve done most consistently during their career: They called in some friends and put together a fucking good album.

Heligoland is sparse, chill, perhaps the musical equivalent of too much klonopin. Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio guests on opening track “Pray for Rain,” a lumbering, clanking, jazzy sort of ponderance on being at the mercy of absolutely everything. Guy Garvey of Elbow gets a chance to glum up the place on “Flat of the Blade,” a sporadic pseudo-industrial lament about how much it sucks to be generally useless exactly when you are needed—like being unemployed when you need to pay the mortgage. (Other guests include Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, and Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn.)

But it’s not all wrist-slitting, head-in-the-pillow trip-hop (even though it’s damn good depressing stuff). “Paradise Circus” gets things shaking with handclaps and the sultry purr of Hope Sandoval: “It’s unfortunate that when we feel a storm/We can’t roll ourselves over ’cause we’re uncomfortable/Oh where the devil makes us sin/But we like it when we’re spinning in his grip.” It’s the song you want playing in the café at night while you flirt with the girl on her MacBook in the corner, or blasting as you drive your girlfriend back from the party, to the hotel room in the rain.

The absolute treats of the album, “Atlas Air” and “Rush Minute,” pulse with sinister bass lines, and ache like a needle leaving a vein. They act like the kind of drugs those creative types use—they make you get up and write, plot, calculate, scheme, appraise, smile like an evil motherfucker, and dance. Picture a Michael Mann flick with the shimmering cityscapes—the camera pans in to a ganja-smoke-filled hotel room, with some sinister suit-wearing types plotting to croak Savage Henry for his stash—and you might get the idea of how these songs might make you feel.

 

Caribou

Swim

If there is one word that can sum up the aesthetic of 32-year-old math scholar Dan Snaith, it would have to be “change.” On 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness, Snaith (who records as Caribou) concocted a pleasurable amalgam of trance-inducing krautrock and head-bobbing hip-hop. 2007’s Andorra melded dance rhythms with the pop sensibilities of the late ’60s, awash with melodies reminiscent of the Zombies and the Association; three years later, its stature has only grown.

On Swim, Caribou’s second release on Merge Records, Snaith has come into his own, inhabiting his own sonic universe and largely leaving outside references behind. It’s the closest to club music he has ever gotten, and may provide the commercial breakthrough that his music so richly deserves. Still present are the iconoclastic touches that make Caribou so unique, like the Pharoah Sanders-esque, multiphonic sax solo that closes out the luxurious “Kaili,” the gamelan percussion breakdown in “Bowls,” and the repetitive to the point of off- putting vocal loop on “Sun.” What truly sets the album apart from typical dance music is the sonic texture—instead of the hard-edged, crisply defined sounds of, say, Lady Gaga, Snaith instead wants his music to sound organic and elusive, constantly changing and evolving in subtle ways. Notes oscillate in pitch, transferring from one speaker to another, enacting a constantly shifting landscape not unlike a seascape.

Snaith also seems much more comfortable as a vocalist, with less double-tracking and reverb drenching his voice. He does enlist an outside vocalist (Born Ruffians’ Luke Lalonde) for closing track “Jamelia,” and the result is a quiet bit of soul music that ends the album in an intriguing and satisfying way.

At its best, Swim bypasses reason and enters the world of ritual. Like most of Caribou’s music, the album stands up to repeated listens, and is something to go to when one wants to conjure up a mood of seduction, mystery, and yes, in its own gnomic, cerebral way, fun.

—Mike Hotter

 

Various Artists

Intermediate Masterworks for Marimba

Intermediate Masterworks for Marimba is a remarkable undertaking in every regard. The two discs feature 24 new concert pieces, two-thirds of which were commissioned by a range of known composers. The remainder were winning entries in a contest held by the Zeltsman Marimba Festival, the organization behind this endeavor. Eight marimbists performed the works, all of them from the realms of symphonies or universities. The music ranges from Carla Bley’s playfully wistful “Over There” to Gunther Schuller’s angular “Three Small Adventures” and J.K. Randall’s abstract “Through Lapland.” Sonically there is the full gamut from the rich bass notes in Steven Mackey’s “Beast” to the skittering upper register of Louis Andriessen’s “Mouse Running.” There is the African folk-like bearing of “The Zebra” by Robert Aldridge and the Oriental timbres of Chen Yi’s “Jing Marimba.” There’s also a surprise appearance in the form of a new piece by Paul Simon; he’d written it for guitar, and Nancy Zeltsman adapted it to the marimba.

Richly recorded and thoughtfully sequenced, the two discs play as one engaging set, with a robust sense of variety, playfulness and adventure. These marimbas sound great in pretty much any space you’d care to play them, from the warmth of a winter living room to the thrill of a speeding car on an open summer road.

—David Greenberger


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