Friday, September 10, 2010

Album Review: Cut Chemist - The Audience's Listening

Cut Chemist: The Audience's Listening
[Warner Bros 2006]


The wikki-wikki scratch from a DJ’s turntable is, in essence, a musical surprise. A steady melody is stopped abruptly and a most unnatural scratching fuzz takes over. The DJ freezes the original piece in place, goes forward and backward in time, makes it do his bidding. It can be exciting, it can be as fun as hell, but standing in front of a huge apparatus of musical control, it’s understandable that a DJ is susceptible to letting all that power go to his head in a bad way. What might an over stimulated DJ sound like? Perhaps something like The Audience’s Listening, the first solo, full-length album of Cut Chemist, who is off-stage known is Lucas McFadden. While certainly enjoyable and interesting for several key tracks, Cut Chemist’s time to shine on his own suffers from the symptoms of a DJ just trying to do too much with his resources without a coherent plan.

Cut Chemist’s first solo album comes off of a long history of affiliations, compilations and contributions to other artists. In addition to his work with Latin fusion band Ozomatli, alternative hip hop group Jurassic 5, and a diverse list of other artists in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Cut Chemist conspired with sampling legend DJ Shadow on several DJ mix albums that more closely characterized the alternative club/dance/hip hop of Cut Chemist’s The Audience’s Listening. This latest collaborative duo opens the door for what could be some largely harsh comparisons between the two. However, with the comparative successes of DJ Shadow’s sampling work, as on the colossal critical hit Endtroducing from 1996, and Cut Chemist’s respected but less acclaimed behind-the-scenes engineering, the duo hints at a master-apprentice relationship between DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. Regardless, Cut Chemist’s solo album is his opportunity to chart his own artistic direction independent of DJ Shadow’s. To give McFadden a fair shake, let’s table the DJ Shadow comparisons for now.

That said, Cut Chemist’s hybrid of club genres on The Audience’s Listening doesn’t quite play to the club scene, nor does it cater perfectly to an earphones listen or radio. In whatever environs, the album falls short of being an engaging listening from start to finish. The songs, which seldom break from a sense of repetition, feature promising, often electronica-influenced beats that aren’t employed to their full potential. Examples include “Metrorail Thru Space,” which unsurprisingly evokes thoughts of futuristic space missions but with vocal accenting that wears off the novelty quick, and “2266 Cambridge,” whose brooding beats and cityscape atmosphere end up not going anywhere. The reverse, in which Cut Chemist’s techno stylings mar an interesting vocal layer, occurs with “Storm,” where the abrasive rapping of Edan and Mr. Lif is dulled by an obnoxious, spacey beat of honks and beeps that leaps too far out of the background and into the foreground of the song.

What should instead be a major asset to the DJ, Cut Chemist’s scratching does little to advance the drama or excitement of the pieces. As if filling a quota, Cut Chemist’s scratches focus on already dull sections of songs, particularly the clichéd children’s screams on “(My 1st) Big Break” that are not enlivened by scratching. All in all, the scratching just doesn’t “ooh” and “aah” like it should, and the more times it fails to illicit a response, the more irksome it gets. However, the one ironically shining moment of Cut Chemist’s scratching here is on “Spat,” in which a clever use of scratches take center stage over a lounge piano and bass groove to create a humorous sketch.

Back to “(My 1st) Big Break” the song is a jumbled, annoying mess (save for a cool glass shattering effect) that epitomizes the excessiveness of Cut Chemist’s tweaking with his resources. The song further suffers from an atrocious overuse of blank vocal samples that creeps into other songs as well and is rarely interesting until the opening of “Spoon.” When it’s not a vocal sample that lets Cut Chemist down, it’s usually an actual singer or rapper. Aside from the moronic “The Audience is Listening Theme Song,” “What’s the Altitude” is the worst vocal culprit and probably the album’s worst song. In addition to inconsequential scratching and sampling, the hip hop tinged singing of Hymnal sounds horribly laid-back, mailed-in, and silly on top of atrocious lyrics.

Amid the dullness that permeates most of the album, the few bright spots on The Audience’s Listening are worth a listen. Despite a fierce non-message, “Spoon” features an almost Gorillaz-esque groove of a prominent bassline and funky guitar and is one of the few organic-sounding parts of the album. Another such moment of brilliance is the Brazilian bossa nova journey of “The Garden,” which is far and away the best song here. The song is a mysterious and dramatic piece with interesting scratching and appropriate vocal samples. At center stage, Cut Chemist resurrects the angelic “Berimbau” by Astrud Gilberto (of “The Girl from Impanema” fame) to give the “The Garden” a natural gracefulness and quality the rest of the album doesn’t touch.

Whether due to uninteresting scratches, thoughtless vocal sampling or poor basic song design, The Audience’s Listening simply lacks life. Except for on a few choice tracks, the songs come and go with nothing learned, nothing felt, and not even a particularly fun beat to dance to. Cut Chemist’s future works would be best served by a better control of his own DJing tools; perhaps turning down the bells and whistles, bringing back the surprise to the record scratch and injecting some more heart and soul into his compositions. Ultimately, in Cut Chemist’s moment in the spotlight, he throws a plethora of techno beats, random voice samples and plenty of scratching onto the album’s musical palette, but very little sticks.

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