Jamie Lidell, “Your Sweet Boom,” released on Compass, May 2010
In my original review for Jamie Lidell’s Compass, I wrote, “With blown-speaker production values, and songwriting and sequencing that leads listeners through a labyrinth of polished ideas and conceptual dead ends, Compass often sounds like the soul-music answer to The Flaming Lips’ Embryonic.”
Well. Now that the Flaming Lips have collaborated with Erykah Badu on their cover of “The First Time That I Saw Your Face,” we have evidence of what a soul-music answer to Embryonic really sounds like, and it’s a whole lot weirder than anything on Compass. But Compass was also better, or least more interesting, than many people gave it credit for.
At the time of its release in May 2010, it was overshadowed by grandiose albums by LCD Soundsystem, Janelle Monae, Sleigh Bells, and many others — perhaps rightfully so, as May 2010 was as bountiful as a month of releases gets — but there is something about the marriage of pretty songs to ugly sounds that works on Compass. One could even say the album combines Monae’s honey-sweet ambition with Sleigh Bells’ blood-on-dirty-sneakers grime. It’s a record that moves, albeit with rusty joints.
I’ve selected “Your Sweet Boom” to feature not because it’s the best song on the album (far from it), but because it lays the ugliness bare in an extreme way — even distorting Lidell’s golden voice. It’s the second song on the album, which is usually the point where an album tries to close the deal on a listener. Instead, “Your Sweet Boom” is one of the record’s grittiest tracks here, which is a move that is admirable in its bravery (coupled with lines like “we don’t need armor for protection”) in the face of the possibility of turning listeners completely off.
I think that an album’s second track should tell something about the album as a whole in microcosm. A closer look at “Your Sweet Boom” showcases a bubbling, Stevie Wonder-esque bass and reveals loads of little melodies, which are stacked together into a whole that’s slightly less than the sum of its parts — and the same could be said for Compass, a bass-heavy album peppered with an eclectic mix of highlight songs, but one that fails to hold together as a whole. I gave the album a stronger review than most critics, but have barely returned to it in the past two years and this is a large part of why.
Looking at it now, the production values seem less like The Flaming Lips than a band like How To Dress Well. Whereas that band employs harsher production values because (I’m guessing) they’re finding a way to get the most out of a tiny budget, for Lidell it’s purely an aesthetic decision. He has a bigger budget, a larger rolodex of people to help him, and more talent and charisma than pretty much all of these bedroom producers, but he opted for an album that sounds as compressed and blown-out as most of their work.
For an artist who trades on nostalgia and homage to the degree that Lidell does, I believe these sonic choices reflect not the bedroom production that is trendy today, but the poor sound quality in Youtube clips of old performances, such as this clip of Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog”, for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6AZNywvF-s. With Compass, Lidell could have been taking something of an Instagram approach to making music. It’s a style that I wouldn’t mind seeing him pursue further, when he releases music again (I had Compass pegged as a transitional album, and it’s a shame when those aren’t immediately followed by new material). But if he does continue on that path, I’d like him to make the songs themselves either more accessible or more bizarre. Outside of the lack of a single on the level of a “Multiply,” the most disappointing thing about Compass — and the reason it doesn’t invite years worth of listens — is how noncommittal it is. Or, as I said in my original review as a follow-up point to the Flaming Lips comparison, “Embryonic had plenty of half-formed songs but it didn’t have half-baked concepts, while Compass has a little of each.”
If you only check this site on Monday for new material, please note that I put up a piece on LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls” last Thursday. It was delayed because I was moving on that day. Thanks!