For four albums the UK-based Kaya Project--Seb Taylor and Natasha Chamberlain--have created some of the most interesting textures of any global electronic artists. While they started off with a heavy Arabic and Indian leaning, their soundscapes have opened into slower, more laid back and refined grooves underscoring a delightful, at times ambient mixing of slide guitar, harmonica, flute, and a deep pocket for the bass to sit in. Drum programming always sounds live, and the percussion usually is--plenty of guest artists appear on their recordings, to fill in the spaces as well as offer them a bit of diversity from release to release.
The recently released Desert Phase (Interchill) is a wonderful dissertation in modern ethnomusicology. Long gone are the giant metal boxes John Lomax and son Alan carried around the American delta. Wireless microphones and laptops allowed Taylor and Chamberlain to cruise around the Sahara picking up the melodies of wind and the percussion of stones. They returned to the UK, dumped it into their computer, and created an eclectic range of songs, from the bass-heavy "Ummah Oum," which features vocalist Shahin Badar and reminds one of their "Dark Tabla" days, to the lush travels of "Eye of the Storm," "Desert Phase," and the gorgeous closer, "Sundown," which features Chamberlain's elegant voice, as many of Kaya's songs do. It's the type of album you hit repeat on and let it ride, for long and inspired stretches of time.
London producer Gaudi was handed a virtual goldmine when a discovered tape featuring famed Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing old school ghazals was found. Gaudi was tapped to remix them, a project that led to the beautifully tempered Dub Qawwali (Six Degrees). The label had him back, and he responded with No Prisoners. Perhaps the title references the fact that he's finally mimicked his live show with an upbeat selection of dancefloor-ready cuts, instead of his admittedly slower midtempo jams, which were never a bad thing. His track with Spanish flamenco innovators Ojos de Brujo, "Babylon Flamenco," remains one of the best tracks either artist has done.
Then "Bad Boy Bass" drops in and your head gets spun. Not that this is my favorite track, with its huge synth bass. But it's certainly upbeat, and when songs featuring Michael Franti and the Brooklyn-based emcee Dr Israel hit the speakers, watch out. Gaudi generally uses a reggae influence somewhere in a track, and if he doesn't, it still feels like he does. The range of what a track offers can be astounding, and while his drums can be a bit static at times--sway-less--for the most part you're too busy shaking it to think too much about it.
Also on Six Degrees now is a both a new venture for the label, as well as for music in general. I usually cringe when someone describes an album as "fun" or "uplifting," yet after repeated listens to Franco-Finnish duo The Dø (think: do re me fa so...), that about sums it up. Inventive. Playful. And talented. I'm convinced that Olivia Merilahti is a pixie. There's one press picture of her snuggled inside of a concrete pipe, making her appear six to ten inches tall. I'm seeking out the dust bag. She's Bjork's younger cousin from another world. Her high-pitched vocals could annoy if they weren't so interesting, and Dany Levy does a great job on the production end to make what could be straight forward singer-songwriter pop songs something much deeper, much more intriguing. The lead single, "At Last," is enough to drive fans to seek out more, and there are enough elements scattered through Do! to keep them for decades: handclaps, Lemonheads-style carelessness, cheerleading anthems, Curtis Mayfield-style funk, and yes, serious songwriting all play nice together on this year's most inventive album to date.
While Do! might win an award for creativity, the album that's completely blowing everything out is by another British producer, this one going by the name Bonobo. Simon Green got caught up trying to redefine the downtempo pigeonhole he was being thrown into after albums like Animal Magic and Dial 'M' for Monkey were winning him accolades. It's tough overcoming expectations, but his progress has been steady. By the time 2006's Days to Come dropped and a unique vocalist named Bajka (kind of like "bike-ah") took a break from her jazzy spoken word to wax poetic over Bonobo's solid as steel beats, things were shaking loose for the man.
Black Sands takes all that to another level. No disrespect to Bajka--she's still rocking hard, and helped define a time and space for Bonobo. In 2010, that space is occupied by the soulful Andreya Triana, who sings on three of the man's best songs to date. "Eyesdown," "The Keeper," and "Stay the Same" are sensuous, scrumptious delights, wrapped in comforting, sub-aquatic bass tones, exquisitely swaying drums, and a sense of dignity and lax that's nearly overwhelming. These are gorgeous songs, and without taking anything away from the remaining nine instrumentals, which are all crafted amazingly well, the current American-to-European tour the Bonobo Live Band is on should certainly solidify Green's place as the go-to producer of most any genre worth mentioning. The level of passion injected into these fifty-five minutes is astounding, worthy of all the praise it will receive, and much more.