Thursday, July 13, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Volume 32: Flying Lotus, On Personal Problems and Appreciation

OK...but is he wearing pants? And what does that mean?!
Did bullet points in the last volume, and that feels like a fail. Still, made some good choices, too, so those are incorporated herein.

How’d I Find It?
I really thought that Flying Lotus connected cleanly with the Odd Future collective. Then again, I didn’t name him in my (let’s face it, weird) write-up, so brain-farts abound. He has, however, worked with Hodgy Beats and Earl Sweatshirt, at least.

Gateway Drug/Album
I have no idea how I picked up Cosmogramma; I only know I have it. Listened to it back when, too, and remembered liking it. By which I mean, I was happy when I saw Flying Lotus next in the queue. I couldn’t quite remember what it sounded like, at least not beyond recalling it as instrumental-heavy…

Notes/Tracks (and No Bullet Points)
…and that matters, because I always struggle with instrumentals. With the way my brain snaps to lyrics, listening to music without words bears a rough resemblance to contemplating an unfinished painting; yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely a personal limitation, but whenever I hear music without lyrics, I can’t help but pat my pockets for one of those audio doo-dads they give you at museums to explain the history and meanings of the damn paintings. (And, as with paintings/sculptures/all visual media…just look at the damn thing, ya lazy twit; something’ll reveal itself*.)

(* Also, I have improve, lo, these past 10-15 years.)

In a bid to contain the sprawl, I confined my close listening to just two of Flying Lotus’ albums, Cosmogramma (2010) and You’re Dead (2014, non-Deluxe), but with one detour back to his debut album, Los Angeles (2008). A couple tracks (well, names, actually; “Beginner’s Falafel,” “Comet Course” (for once, read the comments) and “Roberta Flack”) stood out on that one, but focus requires focus, so those got short shrift…that said, in a moment that reveals the persistence of my need for lyrics, my ears pricked up on “Roberta Flack” and just because someone said something. (Sweet, sweet relief.)

There’s one other thing to point out: the only other time this series put any real time into an “instrumental artist” was the Quasimoto/Madlib volume – e.g., way back at Volume 13. Fond memories of Madlib suggested he’d make for a decent measuring stick against Flying Lotus. That experiment backfired a bit…spent a wee bit too much time, in fact, on Madlib.

Back to Flying Lotus, it feels like the best frame to hang up around him starts with words like “atmospheric,” “layered,” and “probably nicely stoned.” Even as he’s not so different from Madlib (they even collaborated at least once), in that he uses a lot of jazz elements, Flying Lotus seems to borrow/employ more electronica, EDM (? – yeah, last one’s a stretch; learning, bear with me). And that parenthetical question mark feels even more relevant given that whatever dancing one can do the Flying Lotus would, by necessity, involve vast amounts of spontaneous, uh, astral channeling (see, “Tesla,” both for jazz elements and elaborations with rhythm).

Flying Lotus ranges wider, too: a couple personal favorites borrow video game sounds (or video-game-esque), most obviously in “Dead Man’s Tetris” and the opening to “Clock Catcher” (also, watch video and see below about certain settings/chemical reactions); his cleverest borrowing, however, comes with “Table Tennis,” which, unless he tricked my ears, uses an actual ping-pong ball for audio effect. Those are quirks, though; if there’s a unifying effect to it all, I’m sticking with jazz/electronica.

As for tempo, a couple stray outliers aside – say, the “Cold Dead” and “Fkn Dead” combo from You’re Dead, which pulls in more rock elements than usual (guitar) – he generally keeps a mellow mood (and neither songs strays so far). More to the point, Flying Lotus’ music has a natural tendency to sort of seep a one layer into the background – by which I mean, he forges forward without one of the central benefits of lyrics, e.g., a voice repeatedly commanding your immediate, present attention. For all that, I can see certain settings and/or obvious chemical reactions where one would very comfortable sink into that same background layer, and merge into that auditory space.

I do a lot of my listening at work (and thank all the known gods for that), which means I’m listening with an exciting array of distractions. In that sense, Madlib had a built-in advantage, in that most of his tracks that I listened to included the centering, siren sound of (most often, rapping) voices. Bad Neighborhood Instrumentals, which I only tried out today, leveled the playing field a bit, but even that presented a distraction to the primary mission. To be clear, comparison wasn’t the intent. It just became impossible to avoid.

It’s here where things get interesting, or at least generational. Madlib’s a big stretch closer to my age than Flying Lotus, and that raises pointed questions about comparative contemporary zeitgeists – i.e., the extent to which musical taste grows from how one’s ears are trained by what they heard while growing up. In so many words, Madlib’s samples and arrangements play more musically/melodically, whereas Flying Lotus’ present more as sound/impression. And the question I get hung up on is whether the appeal with the former isn’t a function of the three years of life that separate me from Madlib (OK, Otis Jackson, Jr.), versus the 12 years that separate me from Flying Lotus (Steve Ellison). Basically, I don’t want to knock Mr. Lotus (can I call him Flying?) as being a lesser artist based on nothing more than personal taste – something that goes double if it’s based on nothing more than the particular stretch of time and space in which each of us walked the earth.

The fact that I haven’t talked more about individual tracks in this post comes from a place of diffusion rather than disrespect. A playlist will accompany this post, as always, and I rate each song I chose. If I bounce around the two albums I listened to, I could pick several that feel like the center of Flying Lotus’ sound – and the bubbling beats of “Galaxy In Janaki” works as well as anything (again, video/chemical reactions; also...okay). Still, I would appreciate it, and sincerely, if people from closer to my age (46) listened to, say, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead and then Madlib’s roughly contemporaneous Rock Conducta (either volume), while someone younger (say, closer to Flying Lotus’ 33) did the same. I’d love comments/votes as to what listens easiest, and with theories (elaborate, or otherwise) as to why.

I want to close this volume with one note. I spent this afternoon going back and forth between Madlib and Flying Lotus trying to isolate what actually separated one artist from the other. My last guess was a simpler, more traditional rhythmic scheme – something I thought I got from Madlib, but not so much from Flying Lotus. A song like “German Haircut” confirms it (tres jazz), but that theory really lasted only as long as checking back in on a couple favorite tracks – e.g., “Never Catch Me” (ft. srsly famous dude), “Dead Man’s Tetris,” or even older tracks like “Nose Art.”

I just spent the last half hour (not kidding) trying to find one track I heard today, one where the rhythm looked like it would follow a super-traditional hip-hop dominant beat - two bass “throbs,” basically – that I thought would continue through the rest of the song. Instead Flying Lotus followed those two “throbs” with a bpm-crazy drumming runs. I can’t find the damn thing and, frankly, I’m losing my mind over this, so…hold on, found it!!ComputerFace//Pure Being!” I’m talking about the break right before the 2:00 mark. I thought, if only for a second (and in spite of everything I’d heard all day), that he’d settle into that simpler beast. Nope, he went with the runs…which just came out wrong…

After all the comparisons above, I think I want to end on a note of respect: Flying Lotus is everything but simple and easy. And, as with a lot of guys cut from the same cloth, my appreciation for what he does grows with each listen.

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