Top 25 Favorite Albums of 2010 | #14. Jamie Lidell – Compass

#14. Jamie Lidell – Compass


You have to understand how crazy the success of Jamie Lidell’s solo career is.  Here was a guy who had established himself as a techno/IDM (intelligent dance music) producer in the late 1990s, forming the tag-team project Super_Collider with fellow producer Cristian Vogel and releasing two critically lauded albums in ‘99 and ‘02 on the electro-centric Warp Records.  Certainly the future looked at least slightly illuminated for Lidell.  IDM was at its apex (see Dntel’s Life Is Full Of Possibilities, otherwise known as the birthplace of The Postal Service), and Lidell had found time to sandwich a solo record in between the Super_Collider albums.

‘Wait, a solo album?  In 2000?  But I thought Jamie Lidell’s solo debut was Multiply!’  You thought wrong, my friend.  Although, you didn’t miss much.  Muddlin Gear was more of the same screwed, chopped, and downright julienned soundbytes and bits that had been a signature of Lidell’s IDM career thus far.  But wait, there was something… different… in there.  What was that?  Oh!  Vocals!  Someone’s singing on one of these songs!  And it sounds kinda like… R&B?

It was a glimpse, and no one knew it at the time.  Honestly, many of Lidell’s fans at the time didn’t know what to make of “Daddy’s Car”, the album’s single that sounded like a marriage of Squarepusher and D’Angelo.  Was it a joke?  Was that really Jamie singing?  Is he making fun of R&B?  Five years later, Lidell gave them their answer with Multiply, greeting the world with a shockingly dynamic voice equal parts Wonder and Winwood, laid over glitch-sprinkled, soul throwback instrumentation.  It was a total shock to anyone who had followed his career to date, and a breath of fresh air for everyone else who heard it.  It was total reinvention of a lost genre – one that we knew all the songs to but never thought would play a part in modern music again.  The title track sounded as authentic as “My Girl” or “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, but fresh and contemporary at the same time.  There was more Motown than midi, but the ratio remained balanced enough to keep the fusion fresh, unique, and honestly… groundbreaking.

The scales tipped a bit on Lidell’s next record, Jim, as the singer truly embraced the soul-revival and set the samplers aside almost entirely.  While it continued to showcase the personality and capability of his truly remarkable voice (seriously, why has this guy not been singing his whole life?), it began to sound a little too much like retread.  The songs, while nice enough, didn’t have the same impact without the added textures of Lidell’s studio surgery.  After all, we’d heard this music before, forty years ago, and I mean, those songs are classics.  But Jim was nice enough – a good record to queue up on a sunny day or put on in mixed company, or even recommend to your parents.  But the session band bedrock and the girl-group backing vocals, while spot-on in every aspect of authenticity, really diluted the formula that made Multiply so vibrant:  An artist with a foot squarely planted in two very disparate genres, seeming like he couldn’t be more comfortable.

Last year Jamie Lidell found a new direction.  And it was appropriately called Compass.  Representing a perfect blend of all the styles he’d employed in his career to date, the album paints a thick, gritty picture from the outset.  Opener “Completely Exposed” begins with Lidell singing over a heavily affected beat-box before the grimey, lurching track drops in, featuring some kind of sampled riff that sounds like a saw-player picked up a two-by-four on accident.  Lidell intones “I don’t wanna be closed, but opening up has left me completely exposed”.  Whether the lyric references his new-found fame, or his production collaborations on the record (including Beck, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, Lindsey Rome, Robbie Lackritz), the vulnerability seems to be doing him some good.  “Your Sweet Boom” follows, an exceptional song in concept and execution, even managing to employ a pitched-down verse vocal and still maintain emotional substance (that is some kind of feat, let me tell you).  As Lidell sings “We don’t need no armor for protection”, the recurring theme of vulnerability is overtaken by a rallying of the troops, swept up in a swell of shimmering synths and ascending vocals.

The pacing on the album is diplomatic, spreading the highs and lows evenly throughout, and while it makes for a distributed listening experience, I feel like some of the tracks could have been repositioned.  “She Needs Me”, while a compelling slow jam in its own right, totally wastes the momentum built by “Your Sweet Boom”.  Fortunately “I Wanna Be Your Telephone” rebounds quickly with a blip-bloopy boogie and sampled scenery, followed by “Enough Is Enough”, a gem of a tune that sounds like a young Stevie Wonder revving up the Sesame Street block party.  The stomp-clap heave of “The Ring” features another unrecognizable sound (vocal? guitar?) squeezing out a squirmy, dusty riff.  It’s one of many examples of the truly unique and captivating textures Lidell creates on Compass, often allowing him to prop up potentially bland melodic moments with sonic intrigue.

Another album highlight arrives with the twelfth track, “Coma Chameleon”, which serves as an example of everything Lidell does best.  The huge, Zeppelin-esque drum intro gives way to Rhythm Nation-style churchbell hits.  The understated chorus creeps along an eighth-note bounce with horn chops and a devious earworm hook:  “Coma chameleon \ If you ever wake up you will see what you have done”.  The song is a stylistic achievement, simultaneously showcasing Lidell’s studio creativity, vocal panache, and songwriting ability – elements that are present all throughout Compass, but don’t consistently enjoy perfect alignment like they do here.

Ultimately, Compass isn’t a perfect record, but it is a bold statement.  Having tried his hand at genre-homage, Lidell seems to have found the blueprint for an effective marriage of his electro-producer past and blue-eyed soul frontman present.  The results are compelling and boast gobs of potential.  Here’s to hoping Lidell shares my view of Compass as a singular success, and moreover, continues down this trail that he is truly blazing all on his soulful lonesome.

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