Though by no means the most high-profile of the week's releases, in terms of sheer verve and musical impact, this has a life and spirit that surges beyond the others' rather predictable courses. The Belfast DJ/producer David Holmes's group, The Free Association, first surfaced earlier this year on his mix album Come Get It I Got It, where their brief bursts of breakbeat jazz-fusion cemented together his rare soul, blues and old-school R&B selections.
Fronted here by Petra Jean Phillipson's languid, streetwise vocals and the stealthy, articulate raps of Sean Reveron and Charles Fleischer, the dramatic sample-scape arrangements of Holmes and the programmer Steve Hilton acquire a predatory manner that recalls Massive Attack's darker moments. Reveron, in particular, is a real find, reeling off a dazzling flow of verbal pyrotechnics, right from the opening bars of "Don't Rhyme No Mo'", the album's introductory statement of intent: "I don't rhyme no mo' 'cos I shape-shift dialect/ Emotional political cartoon trips," he snaps over a zonking great breakbeat groove laced with flute and horns and razored with turntable scratches. Fleischer, too, has a striking sense of verbal play, deconstructing the syntax of "Free Ass O-C-8" into a sly manifesto of assonant purpose. "One in 10 at 10 to eight will tend to free-associate," he raps mischievously over a backdrop of organ and frowsy horns. "It's not too late, so go create/ it's time to free-associate."
Holmes and Hilton take Fleischer's advice to heart in their arrangements, devising dense, absorbing textures that owe more to Southern-fried swamp-blues and New Orleans second-line funk than fashionable urban R&B modes. The slow, elephantine tuba groove of the concluding "Whistlin' Down the Wind", for instance, recalls the elegant restraint of a Crescent City marching funeral band, while the interplay of horns, guitar and organ throughout the album seethes with urgent, pulsing life, even when stripped down to the merest sequenced streaks of sound, as on "Everybody Knows". The effect can leave the listener giddy with pleasure: caught among the dervish whirl of soundtrack strings, sitar drone and organ maelstrom of "Le Baggage", as Reveron mutters darkly in your ear, is like being trapped in a tornado with an edgy paranoid, though oddly unthreatening.
The only element of The Free Association that I'm not entirely convinced by is Phillipson's singing, which can be too vague and jazzy at times. At their best, her vocals recall Fontella Bass's work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, though some of these tracks require a little more melodic definition than her extemporised cool provides. Not that that's any reason to ignore one of the year's livelier hip hop outings.
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