A week ago I was in Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Festival (it was very OK) and noticed that a sizable chunk of those in attendance were wearing ’90s throwback clothes. Shirts with Bart Simpson, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles eating pizza, the Jazz Solo Cup pattern—some dude even had a hat that just said “1993.” That was definitely a year when stuff happened, for sure. Some good stuff that year, if I remember right. (I was 3.)
The human impulse to eat our own garbage goes in 20-year cycles—in the ’90s, everyone wanted to be back in the ’70s (“Groovy, baby!”). In the ’00s we all fetishized the ’80s and birthed New New Wave. And now in the ’10s, we all want to go back to the ’90s. Sure enough, every other contemporary guitar band sounds like Pavement got super-high and fell asleep, and a Clinton might be back in the White House. By that measure, Seattle should be cool again now, right? If cool means The Real World being back in town, maybe not. When Seattle does merit the national spotlight again, it won’t be through cheap cash-outs on slacker/grunge nostalgia—but without that, what’s the city left with?
The artists who caught our eye this July are attempting to answer that question by forging pathways toward a future Seattle sound that doesn’t simply regurgitate what came before, but examines the current landscape and plays off it. Apparently, we’re still interesting, if this month’s cream-of-the-crop records are any indication. As Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” But as Michelangelo said, “Cowabunga, dude!” I know that’s a lot to chew on, but we should really get to these albums before nostalgia for the beginning of this paragraph sets in.
Porter Ray and Tele Fresco
Hands down, Electric Rain is my favorite record much-hyped Central District MC Porter Ray has put out thus far. There’s been some debate about what the Seattle hip-hop sound is, some claiming that the city is in fact defined by its lack of a coherent sound. Others like to point to the Black Constellation crew’s cosmic Afro-futurism. But Electric Rain is an incredibly refined iteration of one of my favorite newer contenders for the title—an ambient, soft minimalism that flirts with meditative New Age synths and the eerier end of cloud rap, a sound that Thraxxhouse’s BroBak, Underground Dust Funk’s Khrist Koopa, and, to some degree, the slew of producers working with 69/50’s DoNormaal have been honing in on the past few years. Tele Fresco is in fact a former Seattleite, now located in L.A., but his gorgeous production on Electric Rain is the most Cascadian the rising sound has felt—full of haunting, time-warped rhythms and crystalline pads that sound like saltwater air smells. That muted green and blue grandeur, taken to surreal, transcendent heights by the omnipresence of JusMoni’s featherlight supporting vocals, makes the most dynamic background for Porter Ray’s jazzy, languorous flow I’ve heard yet. One of the most interesting parts of the record is how the MC lets the background become foreground on instrumentals like “Sigh of Relief” and “Inside,” which passes the steering wheel to JusMoni for a song. It’s a wise choice; that refreshing space lets the record breathe (this is a very oxygenated album). “Gorgeous Smoke,” whose title could essentially serve as Porter Ray’s stylistic thesis statement here, feels like smoking a joint in an old-growth forest in the rain. Can’t really ask for more than that, can you? Here’s to hoping Porter Ray’s imminent Sub Pop debut doubles down on the beautiful sonic palette he’s found on Electric Rain. porterray.bandcamp.com
Sounds From the Dystopia
Did seapunk ever really die? I’ve seen more dolphins, yin-yang signs, bad net art, and turquoise this year than I did back in 2011 when the sub-subculture first splashed out of Tumblr’s oceanic depths. While there is seapunk music, it’s always seemed more like an accessory to the aesthetic than its own viable sound, but a debut from a Seattle producer by the name of ≈Pool≈Water≈ is starting to change my mind. The aptly-titled-for-2016 Sounds From the Dystopia is what the artist is calling “seajuke,” a new fusion of seapunk with the hyperkinetic footwork sound created by south Chicago’s vital Teklife crew. There are plenty of reasons to be wary of footwork imitators—as North Carolinian footwork outsider DJ Paypal told Pitchfork last year, “A lot of kids hear, like, five tracks and start making footwork, and that’s not respectful.” But what makes ≈Pool≈Water≈’s dip into the sound work is that he doesn’t go for carbon-copy knockoffs, but in reality cribs from all over the place—a gurgling soup of rave, jungle, chilled-out aquatic synths, ambient, and yes, footwork’s dizzying sped-up tempos. In the wrong hands, casting such a wide net could make for a trashy mess, but “Sea Breeze and Palm Trees,” ≈Pool≈Water≈’s most elegant synthesis, surfs effortlessly atop its diverse DNA, succeeding as a neon Wild Waves ripper that feels current rather than kitschy. “Water Please,” the closing track, is the most interesting on the record—a nine-and-a-half-minute odyssey that cools down the harried pacing surging throughout the rest of the album for a languid, glo-fi, sampledelic experiment that proves ≈Pool≈Water≈ is more than a one-trick pony… or, uh, one-trick dolphin? Mrpoolwater.bandcamp.com
Dave B and Sango
Well, speaking of defining the Seattle hip-hop sound, the duo behind Tomorrow has been very upfront about their efforts to do just that on this excellent new record. The collaboration between 2013 Sound Off! winner Dave B and internationally renowned baile-influenced producer Sango is, as they told Pigeons and Planes, “a piece about our less-exposed Seattle” and built from “the framework of the sound from up here … people don’t know really how it is in Seattle. The culture.” Letting folks know they aren’t kidding right from the get-go, record opener “Zonin” starts with a foghorn, seagulls, and the sounds of ships jostling gently in the waves before Dave B jumps in with his sing/rap flow that’s a dead ringer for Chance the Rapper’s (it’s kind of uncanny, to be honest). He floats atop Sango’s gilded soulful keys and subdued drums; soulful and subdued is really the name of the game on Tomorrow. It’s interesting to hear Sango, save for the final track, let go of his Brazilian vibe in search of something uniquely Northwestern, which he finds in the airy synth and keyboard tones throughout the record. With the up-tempo polyrhythms out of the picture, Sango zeroes in on a supremely chilled-out swirling grayness. “Gone” unfolds like a foggy winter cold front moving through town, while “Got It From” turns that fog into a magical, hopeful autumn morning. The overcast sky doesn’t mean the music is downcast, however, thanks largely to Dave B.’s youthful vitality on the mic—as he says on the record, “We acting like it’s summertime, in the cold weather.” Available on iTunes and Spotify