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Jorge Velez - Roman Birds Music Album Reviews

Inspired by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, this five-track ambient wonder finds the New York producer letting pulses and motifs overlap until the tracks resemble the inside of a lava lamp.
Jorge Velez has long been prolific, but that’s been especially true in the past few years. Like many underground electronic musicians, the New York producer has taken advantage of the internet’s self-publishing opportunities—in particular, the direct-to-fans platform Bandcamp—to sidestep label gatekeepers, streaming services, and crowded retailers. (Velez’s Bandcamp page currently numbers 26 releases.) Velez first gained recognition a dozen years ago with blippy disco derivatives for labels like Italians Do It Better, but his output has gradually become more esoteric and inward-looking. He’s still capable of ebullient club tracks, as last year’s excellent Forza attests, but many of his long, undulating machine jams sound like late-night missives to himself.

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Ali Shaheed MuhammadAdrian Younge - The Midnight Hour Music Album Reviews

Ali Shaheed MuhammadAdrian Younge - The Midnight Hour Music Album Reviews

The two rap-and-soul fusionists aim for a retro aesthetic imbued with the intimacy of a basement club; the results are reminiscent of their Harlem Renaissance-inspired Luke Cage soundtrack.

Producers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge are bonded by a shared optimism. Before linking up on Souls of Mischief’s 2014 album There Is Only Now, Muhammad’s group A Tribe Called Quest gave jazz a shot of hip-hop’s youthful vitality, while Younge molded blaxploitation-era sounds with a psychedelic sheen. They’re different modes that arm themselves with the belief in the historical centrality and regality of black music, which has been a guiding principle in their Harlem Renaissance-inspired work on the soundtrack to the Marvel series Luke Cage. “There are distinguished people. There’s an edginess,” Muhammad said in an interview about the Marvel show. “There’s such a creative pool that’s come out of [Harlem] throughout the decades.”

Divorced from the significance of scoring Marvel’s first live-action black superhero show, The Midnight Hour decontextualizes the retro stylings as simply two friends chilling and creating. The duo’s first album-length collaboration, first conceived five years ago, has more in common with Luke Cage than There Is Only Now. The latter was a more kinetic project that took advantage of Souls of Mischief and Younge’s improvisational leanings. The Midnight Hour is obsessed with creating a small-venue, buttoned-up atmosphere, not unlike the Marvel show’s musical setpieces. There’s a peculiar live intimacy to the production that threads through hollowed-out kick drums and scratchy bass strings—and you can picture Muhammad and Younge dapping themselves up in the process.

The Midnight Hour pivots for the sake of upholding that soulful aesthetic. Take the rework of Luther Vandross’ schmaltzy 1987 cut “So Amazing.” The 1980s radio harmonies and starry keys get updated with a complex rhythm section and bassline that slide into a climax of violins and harp-like strings. Muhammad has touched on modernizing the old-school bops hip-hop has sampled, and it’s clear here that applies to instrumentation as much as attitude. By switching the silk into worn velvet, The Midnight Hour transforms the devotional ode into a cooler shimmy. The Cee-Lo-featuring “Questions” isn’t as indelible as the Kendrick Lamar cut that sampled the duo’s 2013 demo of the song, but reflections like “I’m supernatural/I am strange/Into whom or to what shall I change” still stretch along sweetly here.

Even though it centers on two men connecting over their tastes, The Midnight Hour mostly peaks with the guest vocalists’ performances. Early cut “It’s You” is a two-parter that rises from uproarious low-end percussion (applause included) to an adult-contemporary lovers’ tune, and it’s the humane radiance of Raphael Saadiq’s voice that pulls it together. The album’s most intense moment comes from sometime collaborator Bilal on “Do It Together,” who you’d imagine has his tank top peeking through his shirt as he throws his controlled presence into a histrionic howl at the track’s end. Marsha Ambrosius is more subdued by several degrees on “Don’t Keep Me Waiting,” encapsulating the track’s pleasures in her whisper.

But most of The Midnight Hour rarely captures that same sort of ecstasy. With some exceptions, like the fervorous “Redneph in B Minor”—whose eerie bleats crack open for honeyed strings—Muhammad and Younge too often settle for static jam sessions. They tend to emphasize the bassline throughout the set, but the instrument almost gratingly insists on the same motif: tiptoeing up to the edge of the cliff before descending once again.

By the midway point, The Midnight Hour becomes a bit too insular for the listener to share in its joys. The effect is a little like finding yourself at an exclusive party yet realizing you hardly know the folks who are having a ball with each other. The two musicians have tasked themselves with bridging generational and genre gaps between black music’s multitudes, but The Midnight Hour finds them still fiddling with how to do so.

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