Back in 2006, when I was running a coffee roasting company, we had a giant 100-disc CD player (Yeah, yeah, we had an actual physical CD player. Shut up) that everybody contributed albums and mixtapes and what-have-you to. There was everything from the standard Putomayo stuff that I swear materializes as soon as someone starts making espresso somewhere, through a lot of classic jazz, indy rock, and even an honest to god Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album. It’s tricky to get the right vibe for a communal space like that, especially one like our shop where our clientele was everyone from young high school and college students, older folk who came in because we played the local public jazz station, hipsters of all stripes, tech workers parking their laptops, and stroller moms on coffee dates. It needs to be something that’s both engaging but also capable of being unobtrusive enough that if someone actively dislikes it, they can tune it out, because no barista needs bougie folk complaining about the music during a rush because God knows they will if they feel like it.
Thus, I was on a constant search for things I could add to our rotation, and I stumbled on an excellent French turntablist spinning under the name Wax Tailor. His first album, Tales of the Forgotten Melodies, was like a strange voyage through the subconscious of Old Hollywood in many ways, marrying samples of the films of yesterday with a vaguely jazzy sensibility, all laid over an excellent, languid hip-hop flavored beat.
There were flashes of a subversive sentimentality where he got explicitly political, often in a fairly heavy-handed way, and bursts of a much weirder aesthetic, like in the couple dissonance-heavy tracks on his next album, Hope and Sorrow. Charlotte Savary is a standout here, like in the excellent but definitely somewhat offbeat “To Dry Up”.
(This will always make me think of the little bit of incidental music of Beavis looking at the portrait of Richard Nixon.)
As his style has progressed, these disparate elements have gotten more and more smoothly blended, presumably as he’s gotten more confident in his craft and less ham-handed about his messaging, like on In The Mood For Life, where many of these threads combined more seamlessly. For example, he brought back Charlotte Savary, whose distinctive singing style supplied some of the most jarringly dissonant tracks on his first album, like the honestly aurally upsetting “Alien in my Belly”, but this time she was used much more seamlessly, incorporated into the overall aesthetic of the album without sticking out so glaringly. He also dives full on into funk and soul, widening the scope of the other artists he collaborates with, like with the spectacular “Leave It”, featuring the incomparable Dionne Charles.
Along the way, he’s put out a semi-autobiographical concept album in 2012, Dusty Rainbow From The Dark, and a rather impressive full reorchestration of many tracks from his discography to celebrate his ten-year career anniversary that made a successful tour of Europe. As a result, his previous album before this current one, By Any Beats Necessary, had something of an exuberance about it. Explicitly channeling the feeling of an American road trip, it bounces along, clearly the product of an artist enjoying their success and at a fairly joyful point in their career, and despite some dips into a more somber tone in some places, and retaining that explicitly subversive political bent, it definitely has an overall feeling of being on an upward swing.
Into this comes his most recent release. It still has that confident ease he’s brought to his past few albums, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s been as affected by the past couple years of history as the rest of us. From the start, it felt like an album that was explicitly channeling the chaos and darkness of the past year. The opening track, “Fear of a Blind Planet,” (presumably named after the seminal Public Enemy album and not the Futurama episode) seems like its implying an anxiety over people acting in ignorance and without thinking, and all that was even before I hit the explicitly pandemic-themed track “Everybody”, where Del the Funkee Homosapien excellently encapsulates the crazy feeling of living through the shelter in place orders in his verse.
The first couple tracks are fairly in line with the rest of his work, a nice jazzy melodic line layered over a quality hip hop beat. It’s interesting that it seems like his ability to piece together complex rhythms has continually improved, because he’s able to create a genuinely complicated beat without it being as sort of overproduced as some of his earlier work. Take “Never Forget”, which I swear is like he’s managed to make a working beat out of the sound of a DJ trainwrecking.
An early standout is the genuinely breathtaking “Just a Candle”, a beautiful, melancholy track that feels like groping through the darkness for a hopeful sign. It’s a singularly amazing track. I honestly have nothing to say about it that isn’t just gushing with praise. The video is amazing, too, a crazy piece of surrealism that feels vaguely like it’s channeling Sunless Skies and 2001: A Space Odyssey in equal parts.
However, maybe this is because I’m hipster scum who listens mostly to his own music and to a local, listener supported, non-commercial Bay Area radio station (God, such hipster scum), but “On The Air”, decrying Top40 radio practices, seems almost like an anachronism, the proverbial old man shouting at clouds. I mean, seriously, I’ve never heard Wax Tailor on the radio, but his debut album has been parked on the top charts of the iTunes store Electronica section since it was first released and the dude has had multiple successful world tours. Radio success is less relevant to an artist’s success than it’s ever been. But now I’m the one yelling at clouds, aren’t I?
Better is “Misery”, a track that, of all things, has quotes from Mario Cuomo’s address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, and it’s the first sign that this album might be saved from the curse of so many electronic albums where the middle kind of becomes a doughy, indistinct slog. Even better, after it comes “Shining Underdog”, with Boog Brown, who manages to maintain the tone of the previous track while injecting some much needed life into the album at this point with her silky smooth lyricism, keeping it from becoming monotonous. She’s great.
Then comes “Déjà Vu”, a fairly meta track where he cleverly reuses samples he’s used on his previous albums. It’s a bit gimmicky but damned if it doesn’t work for me. Especially because the opening of Hope and Sorrow is a long piece about how important being able to recontextualize and build upon the past is for the health and vitality of a culture. It definitely feels like a transitional piece, because then we seem to be getting into the more engaging back half of the album, and right off the bat comes “Keep It Movin”, a good, dancing track that expertly showcases the straightforward lyrical virtuosity of D Smoke. It’s a great, engaging jam of a tune whose lyrics are mostly just there for the verbal joy of it, and it comes just in time to keep you engaged. Similarly, “Like This” is just a good old fashioned bit of turntablism that’s evocative of some great old-school hip hop.
But then we come crashing back down to Earth. “Paint it Black” has a Gil Scott-Heron poem in it’s entirety, and damn, it’s heavy. Like, don’t get me wrong, it’s GOOD, but daaaaaaaamn is it heavy. It flows almost seamlessly into the next track, “Dusk to Dusk”, featuring Yugen Blakrok, a South African artist whose slightly rough delivery works great for the complex rhymes she creates, weaving references to esoteric mysticism and occultism and the Hidden Masters into a dense, engaging flow.
Finally, he brings the album to a close with “The Light”, an instrumental track almost devoid of discernible vocal clips or lyrics, that manages to be somehow both tense and driving and oddly meditative. It almost feels like a statement in and of itself, where the beginning of the album was largely marked by a feeling of desperately feeling one’s way through the dark, but upon finding the light again, it’s harsh, startling, and not even remotely the end of our troubles.
In a way, it almost feels like a statement about 2020 in general. Despite things being horrific and black for most of it, us finally coming out of the tunnel into the light of 2021’s day doesn’t magically make the problems go away. It just lets us see them for what they really are. And now the hard work begins.
All in all, I really like this album. It doesn’t quite hit the spectacular heights of his previous venture, but, honestly, anyone who could make an album like that in 2020 is almost certainly either so privileged that they’re insulated from reality, or a complete monster. And anyone who’s as socially progressive and politically minded as Wax Tailor would probably not take the global COVID-19 crisis and the resurrection of global fascism all that lightly.
Either way, this thing is def going in my playlists.