Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sublime Portraiture (Atmosphere "When Life Gives You Lemons..." Review)

If you know me, you know that Atmosphere was the lifeline that brought me back to Hip Hop's shore while being dragged down by the mainstream's undertow.

It has been 3 years since an official Atmosphere full-length dropped, but the boys stayed busy. Starting in July of last summer, Atmosphere has been putting out EPs in the Sad Clown Bad Dub series coupled with the changing seasons. There was nothing necessarily ground-breaking about the releases although all were incredible. That led me to one of two conclusions: 1. They are putting out music that won't vibe with the announced full-length album. 2. They are doing nothing new and this will reflect poorly on the album.

I chose the former. Their free Christmas release "Strickly Leakage" was further evidence, as it was filled with one-off tracks that stood alone as good b-sides. When the first single, "Shoulda Known" came out, I grew quickly afraid that the release would be sub-par, as it certainly had dexterous word-play and a solid beat but lacked that quality that could separate it from the songs found on the Sad Clown season series; in fact, there were better songs on the Sad Clown records.

Then the album came out and I realized that I should have trusted my gut. Beautiful.

Filled with tales of people in tragic or melancholy situations, the album lives up to its title, as many of the characters do not make a pitcher of bitter lemonade, but paint their respective worlds gold. Sure, some characters such as those found in "Shoulda Known," "Guarantees," and "Me" never really find the ability to lift that brush, but the lemons are there and there is a sense of reflection found in the narrators of the songs, coming to grips with their lessons learned. The theme applies throughout the course of the album, but never becomes dull or drab, for the more joyous sounding tracks, such as the upbeat "You" and the progressive "Puppets" and "Dreamer" , bring light and hope beyond the context of the lyrics. To further evolve the cohesiveness of the album, the first track kicks off with a soft music box piano and ends with a similar melody and the triumphant, encapsulating tack "In Her Music Box". The care he takes in composing these sublime portraits of people add urgency to their plights and hope in their minor victories. "Dreamer" is perhaps the finest example, in which a mother decides that becoming a single mother would be better than dealing with a dead-beat. She gains victory because her plight is painted with such finesse as to have the listener cheering for her liberation from one dilemma and introduction into another. First single "Shoulda Known" finds renewed meaning alongside the other tracks, seeming to pull you into the struggle of someone realizing that their friend's addiction might just be beyond help. A young girl finding solace in Hip Hop in the closer "In Her Music Box" fills the reader with a sense of nostalgia for those things that brought us comfort in our youth, while dually recognizing just how perceptive youth can be, especially when faced with dueling parents. Even when talking about himself in the glum "Me", he brings his own bad decisions to the surface unlike before, reflecting in front of canvas as opposed to simple lamenting over empty shot glasses.

The album separates itself in more ways than its sense of focus: Slug and Ant bring in surprises as well. Songs such as "The Skinny" and "Your Glasshouse" keep the listener convinced that Slug is going in one direction until he pulls a dramatic u-turn at the end that certainly makes you smile and appreciate his story-telling ability ("Your Glasshouse") and his use of conceit ("The Skinny"). Another example of such an unexpected twist, but perhaps only for those who know Atmosphere's catalog and Slug's subject matter, is the sweet sounding "Yesterday". Another fine example of him steering clear of predictability is on the piano driven, Tom Waits beatbox assisted "The Waitress". You should know by now that Slug's subject matter frequently focuses on heartache, and this song fits fine into that realm; however, instead of himself being the hopeless one desiring the otherwise less than desirable working class girl (see: "Denvermolorado" from Seven's Travels, "Dirty Girl" Felt 2, etc.)... well, you listen, and see how clearly he communicates that it is not him this time. Also, note how the point of the song is not the dsire for a woman, but a much deeper and reflective one.

Although clearly a Hip Hop album, this record does one thing, content-wise to separate itself from the herd. As far as the genre is concerned, you might have noticed that it is the only that is consumed with itself and its current status. How many times have you heard rappers complaining about fellow rappers, the demise of the genre, wasted entire songs and albums obsessed with itself? Well, although Slug has done this in the past, this album is devoid of any of this. One might argue that "Puppets" falls into this category, but you can just as easily argue for a universality about it.

The final surprise here is the sound of the album. While Ant still mans the helm, he steers clear of the predictable drum machine waves and machine-conjured lakes, navigating the record into the vast ocean of live instrumentation. There are pre-programmed and computerized elements that pair nicely with the live sound, but the difference in sound is immediately notable and to the strength of the album and their evolution. Nate "Guitar Man" Collins drives the soon-to-be crowd favorite "Guarantees" and live horns add a purity to the jazz of "Wild Wild Horses". It's as if Ant is responding to Slug's maturity with quite a bit of his own. No; it just shows how on point the two are as a pair. The two guest appearances,Tom Waits and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adibempe add another element of freshness, as Tom Waits lends an unexpected beat-box to "The Waitress" and Tunde lends his smooth vocals and an odd sounding instrument to "Your Glasshouse".

There is no better way to end this review than with the word that runs through my ears every time I hear the record: evolution. The first time I heard it I loved it. Listening to it now, a month and countless listens later, I acknowledge how beautiful and special this contribution is to music and to me. Neisel said he would wait a while before he measured its greatness. It's been long enough. I've purchased at least 10 records since I got this one in the mail and have given none a full, thorough listen, thanks to this record (as well as Radiohead and Why?). Atmosphere has evolved and successfully created a record that stays true to its title, true to their style and true to the notion that band can grow. Much like the characters in the record, they pushed past the pigeonholing, labeling and critical failure of their last record to create, if I may, gold.

By the time the record is over, you don't necessarily see a bright and sunny landscape before you, but understand that the tiny gleam of light peeking through the ominous clouds holds hope that cannot be fully appreciated unless you reflect on the rain and contemplate the thunder. And if the forecast predicts and endless storm, grab your umbrella.

This one is definitely a 10.

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