January 18, 2010
Independence is thrilling, but after those first tentative or defiant steps towards freedom, the urge to look back and survey the situation you just left can be hard to resist. That seemingly contradictory perspective, looking both forward and backwards, was at play when Rjd2 wrote The Colossus. His fourth solo album arrives at a pivotal moment, and not just because it follows the lyrical trainwreck and one man-band overreach of The Third Hand. The producer is now more than a successful yet hungry talent; he’s the boss, head of the new RJ’s Electrical Connections imprint. Taken in tandem with the recent release of the vinyl-only career retrospective 2002-2010, it’s unsurprising he’s in a reflective mood.
The Colossus, as its name implies, strives for scale, but also strains a bit under a heavy burden. While Rjd2 excels at sonic collages, the mixed motives on this album– a current spin on past techniques, a synthesis of old songs and a turn toward the future– are difficult to balance. After years spent mastering instruments and recording techniques, he still finds a new way to overachieve, adding his own passable, if sometimes bland, live drumming to five tracks. But, as if admitting his DIY ethos and perfectionist tendencies on Third Hand went too far, he brought in a team of guest vocalists and instrumentalists to augment his own performances. Interlude “Salud”, featuring a goofy British voice similar to the one on Deadringer, says as much: “I’ve assembled a healthy bunch of folks who are much more talented than I am.”
But more important to anyone put off by his unique foray into singer-songwriter territory, he rediscovers, or at least indulges in, some of the mood-setting backgrounds and rattling, rigged-to-explode instrumentals that originally made him such a vital producer. “Let There be Horns” opens the album with stretched-out, Looney Tunes strings and a vaguely Latin beat, jumping between staccato breakdowns and guitar riffs. The applause during the song’s conclusion might as well be the sound of some fans breathing a collective sigh of relief on a partial return to form, since the dust-heavy samples have long been replaced with more electrified melodies.
But just as quickly as he comes out of the gate, “Games Can Win” re-enters more shaky singer-songwriter territory. While his lyrical abilities, which still haven’t caught up to his compositional skills, produce some clunkers (“Play your hand close/ Like you have a glass chin”), he takes a step forward in terms of balance with appropriately toned down percussion. The rest of the album trades off between rumbling tracks like “Small Plans” and a few songwriting efforts like the “The Glow”, which –with it’s smug focus on having “the glow,” overseas accounts and living a life of leisure– seems like the interior monologue of a bailed-out banker. It’s still pretty creaky but better than the cringe-inducing moments from The Third Hand.
Rjd2 showcases a grasp of mood and a talent for arranging on The Colossus. His backing of Phonte Coleman’s soulful vocal turn on “Shining Path” and the springy, triumphant synths on posse cut “A Son’s Cycle” are both understated yet fitting. But on tracks like the eerie “The Stranger”, rolling with punched-up drums and clipped guitars, or “Giant Squid”, which bounces on a guttural beat, the career fusion concept pays off. His instrumental skills, and the synth-funk of Since We Last Spoke (in full overdrive on the movie theater sound check that is “A Spaceship for Now”) help bring more string tones and textures to the mix, but he manages to capture some of that foreboding yet funky mood from his early work. He’s spent the last few albums trying to go beyond sampling songs to creating them from scratch, and he still can sound like he’s cramming tributes to half of his record collection on the same track. But when his relentless drive and sense of restraint match up, they make parts of this album a forward thinking look back.