(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

CD review - Pretty Lights, Filling Up The City Skies (2008)

Pretty Lights is Derek Vincent Smith's project, with some assistance from drummer Cory Eberhard. The pair come from Ft. Collins Colorado, but they've hit the national electronica and jam band scene. Smith has a background as a standard musician, but Pretty Lights is all about mixing and DJing. A key element of their success is providing their music for free online and collecting donations.

Some people see DJing and mixing as being less musically creative than directly playing an instrument. By contrast, when I listen to DJ Danger Mouse or DJ Schmolli, I'm impressed with the vision they bring to creating cool music. These works may be derivative, but no more so than a cover song or rehash of blues, country, etc. The key is that vision, because there are plenty of less talented mixers.

Pretty Lights walks a fine line here. Smith has some cool ideas of how to take a set of unrelated, obscure samples from a variety of eras and mash them up into a decent mix. The two big problems with Filling Up The City Skies are that two full discs (26 songs) is overkill and his approach becomes a little formulaic.

The typical ritual begins with a moody slow start, playing older jazz, pop, or R&B samples mixed with enough light echo to make them sound distant. Then the tempo picks up and a more modern club sound drops down on top with grindy synth beats. Smith also has a fondness for what I'll call chop-cutting: using a beat track that is strategically muted and restored to give a choppy sound where the rhythm is formed out of the silences. He also likes to process rap samples to remove much of the spacing between the words, maintaining the flow, but speeding them up. Smith is also great at layering a lot of little pieces to create a complex collage of sound

Pretty Lights would definitely be a great live show, but Filling Up The City Skies begs the listener to cherry pick high lights. There are plenty of decent songs here, but it's too much sameness. The songs don't quite fully develop either. Many, like Summer's Gone or Hot Like Sauce, sound like they need some rappers laying it out over the groove.

One of the best tracks is Something's Wrong, which starts out acoustically like Led Zeppelin's Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You. But it's actually an old Janis Ian song, The Come On. They've taken Ian's cool descending riff and filled it out with into almost Beatlesque complexity.

Another good one is The Time Has Come, which sounds like an alternate version of Fight Test by the Flaming Lips. The processed guitar sound and mutant keyboard riffs sound great.

More Important Than Michael Jordan starts out like Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield), but quickly adds a reflective club beat. Very psychedelic with a number of interesting sections and samples. My favorite part is the heavily processed use of Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth.

Dirty martinis are my drink of choice for this one...

Further listening
DJ Danger Mouse, 99 Problems, The Grey Album (mashup of JayZ's 99 Problems and the Beatles' Helter Skelter
DJ Schmolli, In-A-Gadda-Blue-Monday (mashup of Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and New Order's Blue Monday)
Janis Ian, The Come On, Between the Lines
Flaming Lips, Fight Test, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth, Buffalo Springfield
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells

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