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For the first two-thirds of his promising, self-titled debut, Rahsaan Patterson makes music deeply cognizant of these realities. Although only 23, Patterson (named after the legendary jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk) is a show-biz veteran. At 9, he was a child actor (on some long-gone kiddie variety show), and he penned "Baby" for Brandy and "Back in the World" for Tevin Campbell. In addition, he's written and sung for several recent jazz-funk projects. His debut builds on a foundation of early '70s Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Rufus. Unlike all the uptempo Rick James stuff in vogue among the samplers, Patterson's funky numbers are slow and seethe with carnal implications. His laid-back songs have an artful flow that is reminiscent of Wonder's "Golden Lady." One of the nicest tracks is "Joy," an a cappella duet with Take 6. The group's willowy harmonies are a good match for Patterson's delicate yet not really aching falsetto.
But just after that, everything goes wrong. It's as if some MCA honcho marched into the studio and demanded more marketable music (this disc was recorded well before Maxwell's debut received its platinum certification). The subtle flavors and careful nuances that highlight the first 10 tracks on the recording give way to the bombast of standard-fare Quiet Storm ballads. Clunky synthesizer fills and gratuitous gospelly trills run amok during the album's final four tracks. This dour ending diminishes the force of Patterson's statement, but the album is still a vital reminder of the rippling insurgency in contemporary R&B. Eighteen months ago, this kind of record would have been a welcome exception; now it's further evidence of a trend.
-- Martin Johnson
For my money, the finest moment of the Chemical Brothers' much-hyped Dig Your Own Hole is the conventional pop transition three minutes and 13 seconds into "Where Do I Begin." It's a piece lifted straight out of the stadium rock textbook. It goes like this: Beth Orton -- a guest vocalist who also sang on the Chemicals' Exit Planet Dust and on a few of ambient guru William Orbit's projects -- murmurs, "Where do I start, where do I begin," with this beautiful, disaffected-sounding lilt. Her vocals then double back over a verse about waking up in a hangover fug, and some accompanying electric wah-wah loops get faster and faster and faster until they're a pulse that goes off for three seconds. Then, these huge bass drums crash in, and the whole sound is so thick and big that -- for just a second -- it's the greatest thing you've ever heard.
Sure, the songwriting, the engineering, makes it great, but it wouldn't be without Orton. She's the human connection, a tentacle of personality wrapping itself around a listener drowning in technology. See, Orton's got one of Those Voices. Not only is hers instantly recognizable, its quality is so familiar that you're sure you've heard it before.
On Orton's Trailer Park debut, there's not one moment as immaculate as that transition on Dig. Instead, the record echoes the larger sonic theme of that song -- namely, a union of human emotion and technology. That's by design. Primal Scream knob twiddler and one-time pre-eminent London DJ Andrew Weatherall produced three of the 10 songs, and Victor Van Vugt, who produced all of the Tindersticks' records, takes the other seven. Together, they marry electronic music and folk.
Weatherall's handiwork tugs Orton's voice along into spaces replete with blirrrrrs, echoing phasers, and whirring electronic drums. The Van Vugt tunes are all based around an acoustic guitar, and the accompanying musicians (three fellas from Primal Scream on acoustic guitar, double bass, and drums, plus strangers on long arrangements of violin, organ, and cello) get pushed up in the mix.
While the acoustic songs are prettier and more accessible, the electronic songs ("Tangent," "Touch Me With Your Love," and a cover of Ronnie Spector's "I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine") are more compelling. When the current boom around electronic music fades from publicists' hype to commercial failure, the bleed that the dying genre makes into rock, folk, and hip hop will become the real legacy. Orton's already infusing songs with those sounds.
But Trailer Park is hardly vanguard stuff. It consists of affirmative love songs ("Someone's Daughter"), simplistic takes on karma ("Don't Need a Reason"), and friendship odes ("Whenever"). With both her subject matter and her sound, Orton fits right into both MTV and VH1 and their radio equivalents. But that's hardly a bad thing. If Orton can bring a face to the faceless Chemical Brothers, she could probably bring some soul to the soulless mass mediums.
-- Jeff Stark