Atmosphere – Fishing Blues

3 out of 5

Label: Rhymesayers

Produced by: ANT

The secret’s out, y’all: I’ve never been a huge Atmosphere fan.  I have eternal respect for rapper Sean Daly’s role in Rhymesayers and all of the excellent hip-hop the label has brought my way, and appreciate Ant’s soulified sense of history he brings to his beats, but even stretching back to breakout Atmos discs like God Loves Ugly and Seven’s Travels, I’ve never really connected with Daley’s weed- and beer-soaked relationship obsessions and travelogues, and often find those used-bin informed beats lacking in memorable hooks.  The duo are talented as heck at churning out variations on their theme without much direct repetition, and the majority of their insane amount of output is super easy on the ears, I just don’t reach for my Atmosphere discs on a whim.

And so, 100 years on, from snotty backpackers to exhausted middle-agers to proud adults, Fishing Blues drops a lot of pretense and gives us – check that blase album title, and the sunny, happy dayz cover – Atmosphere as old men.  Slug and Ant have a habit of crafting killer opening tracks, and here, Like A Fire, is no exception, but the whole first half of Fishing Blues actually lands for me because they no longer seem to care about the impression they make.  Legacy solidified; props given; skills proven.  Ant steps off the beaten path with his, eh, beats, giving us flutes and Jamaican rhythms and notes of electro alongside his usual organic selection of dense rhythms, and as opposed to seeming like a forced attempt at sounding “different,” this is earned experimentation, twenty freakin’ years on.  I still don’t find much common ground with Slug’s narratives, but his personality, as presented here, touching on some topical social issues (though fear not, no mentions of Trump) cut in with the usual boast tracks and then some “I don’t get these kids nowadays” moments, is so much more approachable and relatable.  For me, the juxtaposition is that when Slug isn’t using his lyrics as a confessional, there’s less of a “please love me” desperation and I can get closer to endearment on my own terms.  Further embracing this approach are the album’s guest stars, who each bring their own identifiable styles to their contributions and – to make a maybe weird comparison – the songs are reticent, structurally, of Gorillaz’s later stuff, with Damon Albarn as ringleader and letting others take the mic and shine.  So it goes here, with Sean and Ant giving room to MF Dem, Aesop, Kool Keith and others, as more than just drop-a-verse hypemen.

All of these good vibes hold true for a good chunk of the album.  Atmosphere discs tend to be good bang for your buck in terms of runtime, and Fishing Blues maintains that, with 18 tracks at 60+ minutes.  Alas, the refreshed stylings of the album only support about 30 minutes of that, and after the midpoint or so, things return to business as usual: falling back on a more “classic” sound and spit style, which, as stated above, is toe-tapping but not particularly – for me – memorable.

But: congratulations to this seasoned crew.  I’ve hit play of my own volition several times on Fishing Blues, suggesting there’re still some musical places and albums to go.