Review Summary: I've got to move, come let me take you on a party ride / And I'll teach you, teach you, teach you, I'll teach you the electric slide
With a process as labored as the one behind Pretty Lights’ latest LP, A Color Map of the Sun
, the actual music itself tends to be subsumed by the narrative. For Derek Vincent Smith, who, like many electronic acts of his ilk, has always been more tilted toward ticket sales instead of records, it runs the risk of turning into a gimmick. Smith spent months working with live session musicians to create a live version of the cross-cultural sound collage that makes up his music, a twisty, groove-heavy brand of hip-hop, jazz, and funk, with generous dollops of soul inflected with shards of blues and trip-hop that defies much categorization other than “pretty cool,” especially if you fall under the dorm room stoner or the casual raver that encompass Smith’s key demographic. He then pressed the results (recorded, per Hipster Law, on pre-1970s analog equipment) onto vinyl and sampled the material into his own songs using modular synthesis. It’s a novel idea, and, although seemingly redundant, turned out reasonably well: A Color Map of the Sun
, Pretty Lights’ 4th proper record, sounds like a Pretty Lights album, largely agreeable to fans and newcomers. The problem is that those actual live recordings, collected here as a second disc, are immeasurably more rewarding and engaging an experience than the finished product.
That this is so isn’t necessarily a critique of Smith – after all, these are his compositions, whether recorded live or chopped and reshuffled into his familiar brand of laidback dubstep. Pretty Lights’ ascension in the dubstep and festival scenes has taken an increasingly populist bent in recent years, reveling in neo-soul and blissed-out rhythms that often disguise a thick undercurrent of bass and the occasional skronk of brostep, breaking through the marijuana haze and epileptic lights of his live show to get at the MDMA percolating through the audience’s veins. The combination is loud and sweaty but still overwhelmingly chill, content to light up rather than mosh. It’s an enjoyable recipe that has nevertheless become something of a formula, and A Color Map of the Sun
does little to veer off Smith’s established road. The tempo is generally relaxed – even when Talib Kweli shows up to inject some vigor into “Around the Block,” it’s in service of a languid beat, one that stops and starts with appropriate amounts of feet-shuffling glitch and bass hiccups. Things are cool, calm, and collected; traits that surely endear Smith to his growing legion of fans and work well for a summer party, but ones that recreate the static hiss Smith is no doubt so fond of, fading in the background rather than grabbing and taking you along.
It’s too easy to get lost in A Color Map of the Sun
, which, of course, might be just what a Pretty Lights fan is looking for. Yet it’s those live recordings that represent the missed opportunity the first half of the record distorts into something familiar and easy. The grooves seem realer, more lived in. While it would be an insult to Smith to say that his production techniques degraded the originals, there’s something to be said for the breezy beauty of the live recordings, an effortless aesthetic that, while not entirely absent in Smith’s translations, gets somewhat lost in the shuffle. Disc one is Pretty Lights, all these crinkled and burnished sounds of the past composed into a convenient pill of electro and swelling bass womps that goes down smooth, preferably with Dixie cups of Monster Energy Drink, a pair of Vans and glow sticks. Disc two is Derek Vincent Smith, a producer with a talent and an appreciation of the history under those worn-out vinyl grooves that belies many of his contemporaries. For fans of Pretty Lights, A Color Map of the Sun
is an acceptable recreation of his wild live show, if nothing else. For those looking to get into the real contradiction of Smith, the album makes for a wonderful primer.