Multi-instrumentalist Taylor McFerrin’s Early Riser, his Brainfeeder debut, is a record of glorious contradictions. At its centre is a series of pushes and pulls—between live instrumentation and modernist beat construction, between tight precision and loose exploration. Best of all though is the gentle swaying between the tangible and the intangible.
This has been Brainfeeder’s stock in trade for years—take for example Flying Lotus’ most recent Until the Quiet Comes, which reigned in Cosmogramma’s free-form collages for something much warmer and considered, or Gaslamp Killer’s Breakthrough, which wrenched viscera from untreated instruments and Gonjasufi’s scarred wails as much as it did rumbling, synthesized bass.
But this is the first, or at least the best, time that a Brainfeeder record has managed to sound so thoroughly rooted in the contemporary beat scene but still sound like the product of, for want of a better word, a human. One of the album’s greatest qualities is that it’s hard to say if it sounds more like a jazz singer-songwriter venturing in to the new L.A. underground or vice versa.
This is clear from the start of Early Riser. Opener “Postpartum” begins with a live kick drum, gentle hi-hats and a lilting organ motif that never stops repeating. But the whole project is crescendo with just hints of what’s to come. By the time Riser recedes and gives way to “Degrees of Light” things have gotten weirder—EQ’d beats, manipulated sounds and a sprawling, winding synth melody that is genuinely breathtaking in not just its beauty but its unexpectedness.
Currents change in subtle shades from here in. “Florasia” introduces McFerrin’s vocals while stretching and smoking out neo-soul tropes, while the beguiling and hypnotic “Stepps” takes things deep in to stoned beat music territory, briefly opening up and morphing in to smooth funk before jumbling it all together. Conveying McFerrin’s hip-hop influence, it’s a track backed by a gorgeous groove: one that sounds in the pocket more than any other, and a definite highlight.
But at the end something strange happens. Riser is closed out by the brief flowering of piano that segues perfectly in to the next track, a near perfect collaboration with Thundercat and Robert Glasper. It’s where this album’s contradictions are thrown the sharpest in to focus—its out and out a demonstration of human virtuosity and beauty, simply a gorgeous piece of modern jazz.
On the other it feels like these collaborators are gently pushing McFerrin out of a cocoon. The album opens up somewhat after this. “Decisions”, featuring Emily King, is subdued modern alterna-R&B almost reminiscent of SBTRKT, while “Place In My Heart” is the closest the album comes to pop, a gentle, moody four-to-the-floor slow burner. Even then, though, it’s all about build.
McFerrin saves some of his best cards for last. “Invisible/Visible” features the irresistible crooning of his father, Bobby McFerrin, atop shimmering instrumentation and one of the album’s most coherent, bass driven grooves to create an almost indescribable atmosphere. It’s happy, redemptive and melancholy all at once. All wordless.
Closer “PLS DNT LSTN” is an instrument-driven moment of transcendence, an all-McFerrin instrumental wig-out that ends the album in its loosest, least controlled moments. It’s totally fitting—Early Riser’s best asset on a base level is how simply exciting and surprising it is, despite never being anything other than warm, subdued and just pretty. It’s a jazz record, it’s a beat record, but most of all it’s 40 minutes of some of the most serene and unique music of the year.
4.5 out of 5
You can purchase Early Riser on Amazon.