There are few pop music embarrassments more humiliating than trying too hard to sound fresh and falling flat. Likewise, mashing sounds and styles together with little apparent focus may earn you elite status with certain blogs and websites, but it rarely produces music anyone wants to hear more than twice. The line between eclectic and pathetic is often a thin one, which is why you’ve probably heard of Vampire Weekend and Gorillaz, while the Stills and Kasabian hold no special place in your heart. Or, for that matter, why Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion sold more than all of Animal Collective’s previous albums combined.
Raindrops and Elephants is one of those rare albums that successfully pulls off the trick of being truly eclectic and consistently interesting. That it’s a remix album of sorts makes the feat even more extraordinary. Dunkelbunt is the alias of Austrian producer/DJ Ulf Lindemann. For Raindrops and Elephants he’s “reinterpreted” songs from the catalog of the Berlin-based Piranha independent worldbeat label, for which he also records. To that end, he’s brought in additional friends and artists from around the globe. “World music” is a hollow term with many negative connotations, but here it applies in the best, most literal sense.
Featuring artists representing at least four continents (from Kenya, Cape Verde, Lebanon, Israel, France, and the United States, among others), the ten tracks on Raindrops and Elephants take in a multitude of styles and sounds. Gypsy violins, accordion, marimbas, drone instruments, congas, and tablas all share space while rarely stepping on each others’ toes. Lindemann’s genius is in making it all cohere into something that sounds like a single-artist project. He pulls this off by adding the hip-hop, ragga, and dub influences that characterized his 2007 solo album Morgenlandfahrt.
Raindrops and Elephants actually starts off a bit shakily, with rainforest sound effects and the mellow chanting of “After the Rain”. There’s also clean reggae rhythm, noodly guitar, and super-slick, English-language vocals from contemporary German act Jimi D. The overall effect is a bit too close to Deadhead land for comfort. Or, rather, it’s too comfortable.
Once the album turns the corner, though, it doesn’t look back. The several tracks that employ the Kenyan dancehall/urban star Cloud Tissa are arguably the highlights. Tissa’s authoritative, charismatic toasting provides the hooks, in terms of both style and melody. “Mia Kwa Mia” starts off with a drone and a twisting bouzouki riff before a sort of techno-ragga fronted by Tissa kicks in. It all leads up to a surprisingly but undeniably funky instrumental chorus, led by squiggly electro-bass straight from George Clinton’s P-Funk. “Balkan Quolou”, originally by the Algerian band Watcha Clan, ends up sounding like a ragga-informed hit that No Doubt would come up with in an alternate universe where they had hooked up with Lindemann instead of Sly & Robbie. In terms of overall vibe, though, “Give You Action” is the best of the Tissa-fronted tracks. Riding on a laid-back groove full of subtle wah-wah guitar and plenty of Fender Rhodes, and with Tissa’s strong vocal hook, it’s practically irresistible, a much more effective counterpart to “After the Rain”.
Mindful of the “too much of a good thing” adage, Lindemann includes a handful of Tissa-free tracks. These are generally very good, too. German DJ Selecta Bence jazzes up the ska-influenced “Roll Away”. The Boban I Marko Markovic Orkestar, from the former Yugoslavia, adds wild-and-crazy horns to “Cinnamon Girl”, a romp of a single. With the album’s most obviously dancefloor-inspired rhythm, the song comes across like a mash-up of Yello and the cantina band from Star Wars as performing a jump-jazz track for a Baz Luhrmann musical. Definitely not a Neil Young cover! Play this at your party or in your set, and you just got 50% cooler. As if he wouldn’t otherwise have established himself as something of a pan-cultural maestro, Lindemann puts, smack in the middle of this all, an elegant, rather gorgeous solo piano piece, “Taste of the Chocolate Butterfly”.
So, Raindrops and Elephants is eclectic, yes. But not in a pandering way. Its eclecticism is a direct result of Lindemann’s love of, and passion for, the myriad sounds he employs. That the album sticks in your head and has hooks to spare is likewise evidence of Lindemann’s fondness for pop, hip-hop, and dance music as well as traditional ethnic folk. Raindrops and Elephants deserves to be a word-of-mouth, crossover milestone along the lines of Manu Chao’s Clandestino. While it’s not perfect, it’s a party for your head, and a mighty interesting one, too. 11/18/09
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