Arts & Culture

Compilation album ‘Work’ clings to its underground roots

Nicolas Jaar ’12 redefines music through boundary-pushing sounds, rejecting mainstream influence

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2014

One word: Unconventional.

This word links the many dimensions one can use to describe Other People’s new compilation album, “Work.” To start off, the album’s concept itself is nonconformist. Other People is a subscription-based imprint that releases new music every week to its users.

Only naivete can drive a budding artist these days to refuse a deal with the big leagues or so music executives would think. As Nicolas Jaar ’12 — the mastermind of Other People and the curator of “Work” — said to the Guardian outright back in 2012, “I’m never going to sign for a major label, period.”

That appears to be his running thought even now. “Work” is Jaar screaming opposition to big-name labels loud and clear. The first track, titled “The President’s Answering Machine,” is actually a recording of an unanswered phone call, a direct jab at those who try to pull him from the underground scene. This theme echoes throughout the album.

Oftentimes, listeners categorize music based on perceptions of respective genres, such as including Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” on your dance playlist and John Mayer’s “Paradise Valley” on your relax playlist. But that idea does not apply to “Work.”

While a listener cannot simply place all of the tracks in a single category, it is immediately evident that “Work” lives up to the original ideals of electronica by touching on a wide range of musical elements. There are hints of jazz (“Freedom”), African tribal fusion (“B2 (Dub)”) and even Lana Del Rey-esque styling (“Things Behind the Sun”) lurking in every corner of the album.

And this is not Other People attempting to fuse genres for mainstream popularity like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” Far from that, “Work” entails an exploration into the furthest reaches of its genre. It retells the excitement and passion for music, and Jaar has done a good job in ensuring that all the artists involved in this project share the same ideals. It’s made by and for the most enthusiastic music lovers.

But upon further examination of the little details in “Work,” a greater stake emerges. Casual listeners would probably say that after the first half, the album diverts into nonsensical terrains. It may appear that way, given the prominence of white noise on the median track, “SSCS (Powell’s “Lift Off” Mix),” which gives the initial impression that something has gone wrong with the recording. The track is probably the most genre-stretching opus on the album, and therefore is one of its strongest moments. It is unmistakably a postmodern art form, reshaping the confines by which we define music, much like how Marcel Duchamp shocked the world with his “Fountain” urinal art. “Work” celebrates the flaws in sounds, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Laziness seems to mark much of today’s marketed music, but it would be hard to deny that “Work” has been fully thought through. As chaotic as the track may seem, Jelinek and Ancient Astronaut must have spent considerable time perfecting the sequencing in their “Work” piece “B2.” Each layer runs on different time signatures, and the result is as brilliant as it can be.

Such technical details resonate across the album. “Work” masters its balance in sounds. A lot of artists struggle to do this — even those who have set foot in the industry for decades. This is where talent comes in. Darkside’s “What They Say” is perhaps the prime example of this. It’s like a perfectly woven piece of cloth, each layer threading through the other seamlessly without disrupting each other’s presence.

The album is indeed an impressive collection, but, despite tracks like “What They Say,” it is far from perfect. The idea of unconventionality seems to oversaturate the album. It takes guts and succeeds at times but shows cracks in the weaker tracks like “Gone Too Soon,” another Darkside track. Even ignoring the repetitive and generic lyrics, the group’s attempts to deviate land it on the mainstream road. A big chunk of it feels very Pharrell-produced. There’s even a direct sampling from Pharrell’s “Come Get It Bae.” It is by far the most forgettable song on the album.

Unoriginality persists at times. “Things Behind the Sun” not only sounds like it could have come out of Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence,” but the vocalist Tamara actually possesses an eerily similar voice. It’s still a haunting track and perhaps the most marketable.

Overall, the spirit of nonconformity takes a toll on the album’s brilliance. The enforcement of that idea exhausts listeners. There’s a point when enough is enough. But perhaps that’s why this album deserves some respect. It takes a lot of risks, landing in territories most artists avoid. Despite some imperfections, “Work” remains a sumptuous offering.

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