deeB – Evening Island

Offsuit Recordings (offsuit003), 2014

In a relaxed tropical place in the middle of the warm sea, somewhere between lounge, downtempo, and trip-hop, you’ll find deeB’s Evening Island.  Danny van den Hoek has released several EPs as deeB (most notably his debut, Daydream), but this time he’s moved beyond the mellow sun-drenched city streets he normally treads, switching them out for a comfortable, isolated beach chair propped in the shade of a nodding palm, before a glorious panoramic sunset with waves lapping coolly at one’s bare feet.  Though Evening Island clocks in at a scant twenty-five minutes in length, the production level and songwriting quality are high, and it loops wonderfully.  It’s one of those short-but-oh-so-sweet experiences that ends too quickly, and goes down smoothly and easily, and most importantly, stays with you.

After a beatless introduction, “Arrival 404,” that bears all the hallmarks of a landing plane, the first stop on deeB’s tour is “Nightswim,” a shimmering number with all of the project’s trademark irresistible charm, warmth, and lazy minimal beats and drifting wordless vocal samples.  What sets this track apart from past efforts are the sweetly lilting string and flute samples that appear near the track’s conclusion, elevating it beyond the already fine-tuned ambiance.  “Trouble in Paradise” is anything but, with strumming guitar chords accompanied by a perfectly pitched shuffling beat, wind chimes, and distant sparkles.  (I get the feeling the title is missing “No” at its beginning.)  A looping sample of dolphin-song is the core of “Thru Waves,” but this isn’t new age territory; it’s a view of the ocean from our sandy beach lounge-spot, while minimal keyboards, sampled horns, and that quiet beat keeping perfect time….not that time actually matters here in paradise.  The sing-song sample “I’ve got an island” that wanders through “About the Island” never fails to put a smile on my face – I do have an island, right here in my ears, among the buzzing insects, light bongos, plucking strings, and twinkling sequences.  “Coastal Service” sees us off with just a tinge of regret, but not to worry – we’ll be back, as soon as we’re able….or when we hit replay.

Undeniably cool, perfectly paced, and deftly balanced, Evening Island is exceptional conceptual downtempo.  DeeB is one of the best there is at creating easy beats that elevate as effectively as they transport, and this tropical gem of an EP sees van den Hoek at the peak of his craft.

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Tony Mahoney – Product of a Dying Breed

Dusted Wax Kingdom (DWK089), 2011

It sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Find some isolated samples from old jazz LPs, arrange them in proper time, add a modern hip-hop style beat, and voila:  you’ve just created trip-hop.  What sounds easy in theory, however, doesn’t always work so well in reality.  It’s a formula that works quite well, in my view, but like any genre, there are certain artists that display a keen creative edge that elevates their work into something that feels natural.

Tony Mahoney is one of these.  With his first release on Bulgarian netlabel Dusted Wax Kingdom, he shows not just a trained and selective ear and technical prowess, but an aesthetic sense that permeates every piece of his laid-back and shadowy instrumental hip-hop.  Product of a Dying Breed is moody, smoky, skulking trip-hop, infused with an irresistible fusion of unease and cool.  There’s no brash swing samples here, lengthy clarinet solos, or turntablist scratching, just eleven tracks of head-nodding late-night city-street slickness from start to finish.  And how slick it is.

After a markedly odd “Intro” with extended dialogue from (I assume) an old radio show featuring the sit-com witticisms of one Mr. Flywheel, Mahoney gives us a taste of his low-key take on the genre with “Delusion,” with an easy beat flanked by a looped bass sample, haunting keyboard chords, a delicate sequence of harp-strings, and a lonely horn, all draped in tastefully understated vinyl crackles.  It’s minimal but drenched in nocturnal atmosphere, with more than a touch of the ominous.  This latter element isn’t overbearing, mind you, but is a mood that Mahoney indulges in multiple times, such as on the string-laden and cinematic “The Last House” and the haunting urban echoes and muted piano of “Vultures.”

Product of a Dying Breed isn’t all lovely gloom, however.  “Love Is A Battlefield” isn’t a Pat Benatar cover, but a potent piece of soulful regret, led by mournfully plucked bass strings and reverbed guitar backed by quiet keyboards and a plodding beat.  The emotion is so velvety thick, you can taste the smoke curling in the air and feel the spreading warmth of the scotch in your belly.  “Broken Wingz” travels a similar path of loss via a plaintive piano and buried-yet-profound violin; this is where Mahoney shows his skill as an assembler, taking existing disparate elements and fusing them together into something completely new, and completely his.

Both “Candlelight” and “The Blues” use female vocal samples of wordless jazz crooning and horn ensembles, but Mahoney doesn’t allow either to break loose of the dusky fog he’s been so careful to cover his music in.  By the same measure, “Black Clouds” and “Streets Raised Me” keep the samples buried and the feel slick and measured; both tracks are closer to pure instrumental hip-hop; if you told me these tracks were used as background for straight rap, I’d buy it in a hot minute.  “Sex, Drugs, and Hip-Hop” is the most aggressive track on the album, with sampled rap couplets, repeated processed drones, and a churning horn loop.  It’s more than a bit bristly, and almost nudges the album off its established foundation, but Mahoney keeps a firm grasp on the reins with restrained drumwork and reluctance to let the energy grow too menacing.

There might be some who’d argue this style of music really isn’t composing, and I’d agree to a certain extent.  I’d counter, however, that most music is already a take on what’s been done before; this genre just goes about it in a more overt fashion.  For me, the key is how it all fits together.  Anyone can take a sample and add a beat; few do it on Mahoney’s level.  Product of a Dying Breed sounds organic, like it was made all by the same artist.  In fact, if I didn’t know it was a sample-heavy album, I’d consider Mahoney a supremely talented musician.  And yet, he is talented:  he can tell when pieces will work together, and he knows how to bring them together into a cohesive whole.  He applies the final connective touches with such deft ease, it’s often impossible to tell where the samples end and he begins.

A tribute to a bygone era enhanced by the present, submerged in low-lit streetwise ambiance, Product of a Dying Breed is indeed the product of calculated cleverness and finely tuned execution.  There’s a lot of similar albums on Dusted Wax and elsewhere, but this is easily one of the best the genre has to offer.