The Music Scene
(Ninja Tune; 2009)
By Colin McGowan | 11 January 2010
While we were busy bemoaning the hypothetical death of hip-hop the past few years, perhaps we should have paid more attention to its offshoot’s relative demise. Trip-hop, a genre that has suffered from a terrible name and most of its output stacking up meagerly in comparison to Endtroducing… (1996), after some fifteen years of existing seems to have been relegated to a perpetual state of stagnation, this faintly-hip-hop muzak that bears as much relevance to its parent genre as, like, Michael Bublé has to vocal jazz. Even some of its biggest talents have all but abandoned the genre: Flying Lotus still sporadically composes beats for a remix or rapper he particularly likes, but the wonderful cosmic dirt-slop being expelled from the rabbit hole he’s currently burrowing down has only tangential ties to his output earlier this decade; and while RJD2 forsook creating soulful pastiches from dusty LPs in his parents’ basement so he could become a nondescript, sorta-folk artist, his recent return to the genre sounds like a half-assed apology. Or take Four Tet, who has reinvigorated his off-kilter style and avoided genre trappings by working with Prefuse or a dubstep artist like Burial, to his detriment, content seemingly to never be content, toying with his brand of kaleidoscopic glitch ad infinitum. When genre seems to almost require sameness and a lack of ambition, it pretty much sets any artist beneath the genre’s heading up for failure, no?
And like trip-hop itself, I’ll put off apologizing or attempting to explain the genre’s purposefulness for another time. And if this grim characterization implies I have a lukewarm opinion of Blockhead, one of the aforementioned genre’s last acolytes, having incidentally spent most of the decade tracking his output I actually quite like the guy. Music By Cavelight (2004) is remarkable for its loping moodiness and Downtown Science (2005) contains the eternal “Expiration Date.” So there: Blockhead has never transcended the limitations of instrumental hip-hop, he’s just operated remarkably well within its constraints, like a masterful decorator in a cramped apartment frequented by people on mushrooms. And thus we step expectedly towards The Music Scene, Blockhead’s fourth LP. “It’s Raining Clouds” is the best example of his specific adroitness; he finds one sonorous groove and then deviates from it only to insert a slew of instruments and vocal asides twenty seconds at a time. His compositions are almost stupidly rudimentary, as if he’s plotting them out on just three lines of an Excel spreadsheet, but there’s something comforting in their simplicity, how even the most cursory of listens can reveal a rigid structure, something as easily understood as a preschool puzzle, something familiar and reliable.
Due to this minimalist approach, Block’s beats rely almost entirely on the three or four unsurprising elements occurring at any given point in a track. Sometimes an element is so singularly great—the trippy guitar on “Which One of You Jerks Drank My Arnold Palmer”—that it satisfies solely; other times it’s the efficiently overlapping instruments or a timely vocal snippet that do the trick, revealing the artist’s workmanlike talent. The constraints of his craft actually aid Blockhead’s compositions—he never strays from his go-to formula of cantering drums and thick samples, churning out dependably effortless arrangements and beats; one gathers from spending a few hours with The Music Scene that Block makes a really mean chicken quesadilla, but you wouldn’t trust him with more adventurous cuisine. Yeah, it’s a backhanded compliment, but he’s good at what he does, and, to boot, he continues to release consistently enjoyable music, perhaps single-handedly keeping the obsolescing trip-hop out of the next decade’s dentist office.