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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
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Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
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Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
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Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
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Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Lisbon
Fat Possum
Nicolay
City Lights Volume 1.5
BBE Music

Rating: 8/10 ?


November 18, 2005
Nicolay's City Lights Volume 1.5 is a release that dances in an area in music of which some are unsure how to handle. As the producer/DJ behind the Foreign Exchange, Nicolay makes this effort fairly easy to interpret: it's straight up instrumental hip-hop with no surprises. However, for some, this is a hard pill to swallow. The genre often gets red-flagged as backpacker hip-hop (another term for poser-ish white suburban/college kid music): uninteresting and even pointless. Those who see it as such don't know any better, or they don't know music very well, or - most importantly - they hug conventionality as if it were their legal guardian. Recently, criticism from an unnamed music review site showed this blatant ignorance and an unwillingness to truly listen to something that wasn't released by Sub Pop or Saddle Creek; ill-willed critique needs to be pointed out as subjective evaluation, because frankly Nicolay's style simply rises above.

Criticizing this or any pre-understood instrumental album for not having vocals is like saying, "Man, Miles Davis plays trumpet really well, but why can't he just croon for a little bit." City Lights Volume 1.5 is not supposed to be a knockout punch nor a centerpiece album; the very nature of the beast is that it is part of a type of music which is often received in different layers (beats, samples, rhymes, etc.). Why aren't we talking about how "pointless" albums from DJ Shadow, Blockhead, Mix Master Mike and innumerable other DJs are? We don't, because good music is good regardless of its form.

City Lights Volume 1.5 is exceptional music representing a genre at its core. Nicolay develops a concept from the beginning with "Theme From 'City Lights'." The album is hosted by Lunchbox Tha Narcoleptic, and plays out as an evening event of chill soul-inspired, sophisticated hip-hop jams. In the first track, the listener hears a padlock being undone and the doors of the album swing open to reveal a string section and a pumping, accented unison beat.

Nicolay's mixes are sleek and loungey but also fresher than fresh. He uses samples of intertwining horn sections, droning organs and every kind of clean string (guitar, violins, etc.). By taking apart one of the album's best tracks, "City Sounds", you can hear what makes the work as a whole such a wonderful feat: the rhythm section of this particular track is built around an electric bass line that plays it funky and danceable, melding notes in unison with a simple hip-hop beat. The snare is intertwined with a chorus-effected, clean, chicked guitar that sounds awfully nice with a double hit at the end of each phrase. In the background, we can hear an old electric piano or vibraphone short-sampled, and a clarinet part to play the counter melody. From here, the tracks don't stop to regroup. "Indian Summer" is led into with the same beat which eventually morphs into a snares-off drum hit and added to by shakers and other auxiliary percussive hits (including cowbell and clicks). In this composition of a similar back-of-the-beat tempo, the mix slinks forward behind a new and more expanded clarinet melody.

City Lights Volume 1.5 is Nicolay's second solo full-length release, and certainly pronounces his staying power in the hip-hop hierarchy. If you are worried about feeling lost without vocals, there are plenty of messages from MCs and funny segments from the neurotic host, Lunchbox. The release is mixed with great attention to detail, but is never overloaded; altogether, the album is slick and laid-back, not to be missed.

Reviewed by Josh Zanger
Joshua Ian Zanger, a native of rural Chicago, rocks many a world with his writing, style, and generally sweet aroma.

See other reviews by Josh Zanger

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