Bonobo - Black Sands (2LP)
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Laid-back London groove maestro Simon Green (alias Bonobo) returns after a considerable absence (on the recording front, at least) with this fourth full-length helping of his masterfully mellow monkey magic. While it's not terribly divergent from the future-jazz cut-ups that made his earlier efforts such an instinctively natural fit with the turn-of-the-century Ninja Tune stable, Black Sands evidences a clear evolution into a more distinctive, sophisticated, and complex style, resulting in his most musically adventurous work to date, and certainly his most modern-sounding. Green's clearly been keeping his ear to the ground for a bit of rhythmic reinvigoration: the immediately striking "Kiara" reworks the hauntingly elegant string refrain that opens the album with submerged vocal splices and a halting, head-nodding left-field hip-hop beat á la relative Ninja Tune newcomer Flying Lotus, while cuts like the "Eyesdown" and "All in Forms" shade subtly toward the dubstep diaspora. Elsewhere, "We Could Forever" is a funky Afro-Latin workout riding an infectiously crisp guitar riff, and the scruffy, swing-inflected breakbeats that dominated Bonobo's earlier output crop up again on "Kong" and "El Toro." But while the grooves here serve quite nicely (and keep things consistently varied), it's the lush layers of unmistakably live instrumentation laid on top -- most of it played by Green himself -- that make the album really soar. That's especially true on the two closing cuts, both stretching toward seven minutes, which eschew electronics almost entirely and feel more than anything like dense, moody, compositionally intricate modern jazz. At the other end of Black Sands' polychromatic though tonally consistent spectrum are a clutch of cuts featuring the rather blandly breezy vocals of Andreya Triana -- silky smooth electro-samba ("Wonder When") and neo-soul ("The Keeper") that make for more than passable mood fodder but can't quite match the musical inventiveness displayed elsewhere (though Green does weave her vocals quite deftly among the clustered woodwinds and sparse stutter-step of "Eyesdown.") For a style of electronica (chillout/downtempo) that's grown decidedly dusty over the past decade -- even though Bonobo is clearly striving to move well beyond such staid genre divisions, and in many ways succeeding, that's probably still the best place to slot him if you gotta -- Black Sands is a welcome infusion of life and warmth.