High Water - El-P - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #76

I have nothing but respect for EL-P in the world of hip hop, being a super producer/rapper extraordinaire and all that. Seriously, I do think he is a supremely talented musician and his hip hop productions are light years ahead of many of his contemporaries.  Note well, “hip hop productions.” As a rapper/producer I wouldn’t really have expected him to branch into anything else: maybe some soundtrack work a la Wu-Tang’s RZA, but that’s about it. Certainly the last thing I’d ever have expected from him is an album of orchestral jazz, but there we are, the man continues to surprise. I did raise my eyebrow at the thought of such an idea, and as it turns out, with good reason: that’s not to say High Water is a complete failure, it’s not a failure or even remotely bad at all. It’s just… curious. An interesting piece of work for sure, but let’s just say they won’t be inducting El-P into the Down Beat hall of fame anytime soon.

The album was release in collaboration with pianist Matthew Shipp and the Blue Series Continuum, who improvised over some of EL-P’s compositions, which then went back to El-P for him to restructure, manipulate and edit. Now before you start thinking this is another DJ cut ‘n paste job, El-P is usually faithful to the band’s performances by letting them take the centre and confining his own contribution to adding small effects for emphasis and creating an artificial structure by studio trickery. Take, for example, Take Your Hand Off My Shoulder, Pig, which opens with a brief swell and cymbal crash, which El-P then loops at various speeds to create a strange, disquieting effect, one impossible to achieve organically, and one that acts as a terse prelude to the mid-tempo composition, probably the strongest herein, one that pulses and swings with flash and finesse. The interlocking horns and rippling cascades of piano put one in mind of Armstrong or Mingus, so called “orchestrated improvisation,” while the persistent, repetitive drum pattern is perhaps the sole remnant of El-P’s hip hop roots, although for effect and contrast there are some ominous synthesizer chords in the background. I’d argue that Get Your Hand Off My Shoulder, Pig, is the strongest track on the disk, with the drumming giving it a strangely hypnotic quality that’s missing from the other tracks.

El-P: bravado and intelligence.
The main qualm I have about High Water is not the compositions at all. Get Modal, for example, has an upbeat, gospel-like melody that delivers a burst of energy into the middle of the album. It’s nothing to do with the skill of the musicians, who perform with bravado and intelligence, getting the best out of the framework El-P gave them and soloing well when they get the chance. El-P’s low, menacing synthesizer tones, presumably added in production, underscore the compositions with some foreboding, a menace brimming under the surface, ready to burst forth at any moment. No: all of these elements are done very well. The problem I have is that none of the musicians seem to know where to go with the compositions. For the most part, the pieces are just not engaging: maybe the framework of the compositions is too restricting, maybe the musicians were getting too carried away, (I doubt it) maybe El-P simply needed to edit more out, although then we’d have a mighty short album. To be honest, my view leans towards the fact that El-P is like a fish out of water here; as a hip hop producer, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Obviously he has some idea or else the album wouldn’t have worked at all, but in terms of getting the best from the musicians, giving the pieces some overall direction, editing down the lesser performances, I think he is somewhat lacking. Like I say, the compositions are often strong, the musicianship great, but the compositions are dragged out for a lot longer than they need to be, with endlessly repetitive phrases and a lot of musical meandering, side to side, but never forward: the compositions don’t build up like they should, so they have nothing to come down on. There’s no sense of development, no catharsis… they just start, and they just end. Often what’s in between can be very enjoyable, but not for long. A greater conductor and orchestrator would have really known where to go with a lot of these compositions (in particular, the stop-start Get Modal seems like a real waste of a great piece of music, Intrigue in the House of India is an interesting Afro-Cuban, vibe with a ghostly flute part, appearing to break into the realms of the truly gripping about halfway through when compressed drums and synth burst through into the foreground, only to recede into drabness when a glorious conclusion was desired: nay, we were begging for it! The composition merited it) and to create something much more intriguing and succinct. It feels a lot like a wasted opportunity, and the premise of the album certainly intrigued me, although I now know it promises a lot more than it delivers.

Again, let me stress that High Water is not a bad album by any means. It’s a curious experiment, one that offers a few highs, and satisfies the curiosity of anyone who was interested in hearing what a real mix of jazz and hip hop sounded like. (Because I’m sure there are tonnes of you out there!) But its tendency to meander and leave you unsatisfied is not a desirable quality one wants from an album. Listening to it is a frustrating experience because you can hear the potential bubbling under the surface; I just think it needed someone different who could really draw it out. Guess the high water was just a little bit too high for El-P.

Words – Adam.

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