It’s remarkable, and not coincidental, that both modern music’s most sincerely analog and most ruthless binary outputs escaped from of the same town. Motown’s multi-track walls of sound (and the soul therein) quickly relented to a deliberate, ruthless 4/4 404. Both sounds are now universally celebrated, while the town itself remains a gimmie punchline.
This is where Matthew Dear grew up. Matthew Dear; Ghostly International label upstarter, he of many monikers, and of remix royalty, has a new self-titled record called Black City.
It is dark. From the production, to the lyrics, to the album art, it is dark. Dark, in most circles, means bad. It connotes violence, gloom, the unknown, and moral decay. But also know that “dark”, as in dark bars, dark corners, and darkened windows, are just as likely to be agents of visceral (vice?) pleasure as they are menace.
This album shifts and seethes. It is unsettled, uneven, but a trip worth taking. It’s rife with warped and distended vocal cuts and samples — mostly Dear himself — double-tracking a low register and high register to haunting, disparate effect.
Despite applying his birth name to this LP as opposed to his many pseudonyms (False, Audion, Jabberjaw), the album does not seem to mine Dear’s personal experience for lyrical content — at least not directly. It has narrative qualities but, save for the beautiful sunrise closing track “Gem,” our Black City tour guide pretty much keeps the guise of a cold-blooded kraut rocker or a club posturer for most of the midnight ride.
It’s especially evident in “You Put a Smell on Me” going all Biggie Smalls on us, talking game about big black cars and little red nightgowns. Dear oozes lines backed by hiccuping blips and organ. This moody, funky, plodding swagger actually succeeds earlier in the album with mid-tempo standout, “Slowdance”. In what sounds like a club track whose vocals, rhythm, and kit are slowed to a sexy trudge, Dear’s lines are slack, rhythmic, and effortlessly laid over a thick slice of distended synth and drum snare fill.
The centerpiece of the album is the title-referencing “Little People (Black City)” which is not so much a song as three movements – all a nod to D-town techno past. It starts as a fairly typical, albeit catchy, club track — not anthemic enough to be a dance floor standout, but it wasn’t intended to be one. A sole, tinny cowbell settles in, echoing over atmospherics and synthetic strings as Dear deftly transitions (as DJ/Producers are prone) to looped vocal clatter as the track segues into a second song section. With a vaguely tribal vocal pattern refrain, Dear’s content here is, as with most disco/techno, embellishment. As the repetition of “Love me like a clown” falls into an abyss — a blackhole of noise swallowing the track — what appears on the other side is a ghostly disco vocal chorus with echo-canyon funk guitar that deftly slips into a hypnotic mix.
So what does it all mean? What prompts a musician with a wealth of A.K.A.’s to use his birth name when releasing a new album? It infers, accurately or not, that this album is a reflection themselves. Is that statement sincere? Ask Robert Allen Zimmerman. Is it affectation? Reggie Kenneth Dwight might know. Is it branding? Stefani Germanotta has a thought.
But what is here, if it’s not directly personal, are some motifs — acknowledgments of humanity — that sit obscured behind technology (in this case a drum sequencer). There’s monkeyness here, and tribalness … brooding and braggadocio … reality and drugs … bacchanalian nights and modern living. It’s a swath of murky content with a warm human core that rhythm always provides.
Black City drops on 8/17 and you can get some free MP3 at his site here.