Review: Moodymann

Moodymann’s new self-titled release centers around the artist’s city of origin. Of its 27 tracks, many are soundbites describing Detroit’s past and current crises. Most of Moodymann’s career has represented the more organic sounds of house, but in this album, he layers melancholic vocals on top of its beats rather than simply making it something to dance to. The result is a throwback to the styles of music that preceded Detroit’s current techno: funk and soul music. This record is something of a historical document, recording the difficult past of a troubled city and the music that has defined the city in the decades since the decay began in the late 1960s.

“Things don’t seem to have changed that much.” George Clinton of Funkadelic and Parliament fame sings these lines in the epic “Sloppy Cosmic,” a 12-minute funk song that is explicitly political but sounds more tired and defiant than angry. This stagnation and entropy dominates the album, even in the more romantic songs. “Desire,” a remix of a José James song originally released in 2008, punctuates James’s beautiful singing with moments of utter quiet. Though the song’s title is “Desire,” the line most often repeated is “remember,” which conjures up not so much the fire of lust as the sense of profound loss that often accompanies longing.

While repetition can often be the bane of electronic music, here the words lose nothing for it. Techno music was born from the minds of technical experimenters with futuristic vision, but the music here encapsulates frozen time, decades where time did not seem to move and only seemed to get heavier.

That might imply that the music here is impenetrably dark, but that is only one side of the style Moodymann employs here. Tracks like “Hold It Down,” while hardly gleeful, transform the sadness inherent in the music into more straightforwardly enjoyable music. Likewise, “Lyke U Used 2” uses breathy vocal samples and subdued singing to create a song that manages to groove while reflecting on a lost love. Every song has a terrific grasp of how to use silence and quiet to deepen the mood. None of it is easy listening, especially since your appreciation of Moodymann’s voice will vary. Yet most of the songs lock into memorable grooves that counter the dark vibes.

Speaking of the vocals, one of the challenges in appreciating “Moodymann” is the singing. Using a scratchy, unrefined style that can grate even when masked with studio effects, he wisely avoids trying to go for huge crescendos. It could be argued that this restricts the emotional range of the album. I would disagree by saying that, while the album deals with powerful emotions, they tend to bubble behind a cool exterior. This subtlety, partly attributable to limitations, makes the album richer. Likewise, those expecting a dance album in the contemporary sense will be disappointed. Nothing resembling an anthem appears here, since the record aims at being reflective as well as danceable. It bears so little resemblance to the contemporary EDM scene that it probably is not fair to compare it.

Though its 75 minutes can be difficult to absorb in a single sitting, “Moodymann” rewards listeners willing to sit through the fragmented sketches, news sound bites and rambling moments. Its songs are solid and maintain a consistent melancholy mood, making this one of the easiest albums of the year to delve into with an eye for detail.