4 out of 5
Produced by: Amon Tobin, Sylvia Massey
While I have a lot of psychedelia and folk in my music collection, there are a lot of qualifiers to that. I wouldn’t outright claim to be a fan of those genres, as I veer away from a lot of touchstone artists of that scene – which I’m vaguely defining as 60s and 70s pop and harmonies and long hair. It’s true to say that I wouldn’t have listened to Figueroa if it wasn’t an Amon Tobin project, but I don’t think it’s fair to start off a description of it that way, since the first thing that comes to mind with its washed-out vocals and delicate guitar strums and drummy pitter patter are those same 60s and 70s touchstone artists: some Byrds, some latter day Beach Boys, and iterations between. But this isn’t kitsch; it’s not a front: this is a side of Amon Tobin, and a legitimate one. Not necessarily surprising, given his history with experimentation, but the point I’m winding around to is that you can’t jump right from a more “typical” Ninja Tune Tobin album to this one, and expect listeners to follow. And yet, I always love when an artist (via a book, a TV show, a comic – or other venues, like teaching) can make something that I fall for that I wouldn’t, at a glance, enjoy.
Figueroa starts off with some intricate, Latin-inspired guitar work on ‘Weather Girl,’ Tobin’s hushed vocals chanting / singing atop, perfectly captured by Sylvia Massey. It’s an energetic track, but definitely sets the stage for something from the more personal, less-bombastic side of Tobin’s output. Followup ‘Put Me Under’ follows this trend, and is, perhaps, the album’s only misstep, in that it’s too similar to the opener, although it wiggles in some killer drum work that ends up making the tracks a good fair. As we progress into the album’s middle, those harmonies start to really come to the fore, with densely-tracked vocals, and tons of gorgeous reverb on the music, slickly incorporating other sounds – keys, bass, some wind-ish instrumentation. And the latter half of the album ends up perfectly shuddering between quiet and (relatively) loud extremes – mimicking a guitar and voice combo, then giving us an epic “full band” sound on closer ‘Back to the Stars.’ The mimicry is on two levels: first in that the album actually maintains this very personal, up front effect throughout, and as Tobin rarely sings above a hush, it has an ultimately peaceful, blissful vibe. But the music – befitting the artist – is dense as heck, with repeated listens (an easy task) sussing out how much busyness and restlessness is there at all times. It’s one of those great experiences that just keeps opening up the more you listen. And then mimicry more directly: there are no guitars, no drums, no wind instruments. Amon Tobin is an electronic artist, and all of this was achieved via that method. This is strictly a bonus. It doesn’t really matter, and the album is utterly convincing and affecting without that knowledge, but, y’know, it’s damned cool.
Tobin’s lyrics through ‘World’ are interesting. Their simplicity stumbles across some really powerful thoughts or turns of phrase, but also occasionally have a kind of sing-song rhyme to them that’s suggestive of something made up on the spot. To this extent, it might be helpful to know that these lyrics / songs were never necessarily intended to make it to a larger audience; I agree with Tobin’s thought to maintain their original state for capturing their core essence, because who knows – if those sing-song moments had been reworked, we might’ve lost the more poignant stuff at the same time.
The vinyl release of Figueroa sounds excellent – sturdy, clean work from Nomark. But I also think it benefits from the way it breaks up the tracks – the A-side is a little more guitar focused, the B-side a little more harmony focused, and each side ends powerfully. However you’re listening to this, though, set aside an Tobin expectations: The World As We Know It is an other-worldly wonder.