If there's a theme this week, it's outsiders, whether that means contemporary artists working at the fringes of the club scene or forgotten musicians from the 1970s. Probably not coincidentally, all five records are also slow burners. Albums, artist anthologies, and compilations alike, they require a bit of your time. They also reward active listening, but really come into their own when they sink in from a room away. And they're all likely to shift your perception of whatever you think "electronic music" is, or should be.
Actress, R.I.P. (Honest Jon's)
Actress' new LP sneaked up on me. The promo arrived just days before its release date, and I've avoided reading any reviews because I don't want anything to color my perception of the music. I want to develop my own relationship with the record before I wade into the criticism. And so I'm continuing to let it sink in — sometimes as foreground, but more often as background, just burbling away while I check Twitter, email my mom, wash dishes.
The album works well as background; it's the opposite of flashy. (This from a guy whose last album was called Splazsh.) In fact, it often seems like it's deliberately slinking away from your center of focus, preferring to fuck with you, quietly, from the periphery. Actress has always been slippery, slathering his tracks in weirdly compressed static and tossing out tracks like 30-second feints, dazzling loops so captivating you're still off in la-la land when you realize something has changed. R.I.P., his third album, is no different, scattering the field with one-minute miniatures that possess a disproportionate emotional undertow; the longest song here, the six-minute "Jardin," spins a single, plinking chord change into a pointillistic reverie of crickets, humid air, and the back patio of a sushi restaurant heard from your bedroom window.
What does it sound like? Gelatinous techno, spun-out hip-hop, new age that sounds like you've always wished new age would actually sound; "The Lord's Graffiti" goes for a Moodymann-on-YouTube vibe. "Ascending" has the absent-minded ambient feel of Oneohtrix Point Never's recent Replica. There are more world-music plunkings in "Uriel's Black Harp"; "Holy Water" is spiked with DMT. And then there are the truly off-world excursions like "Shadow from Tartarus," a synth-and-bells jam that sounds like it's been recorded on cellophane, crumpled up, and stuffed in a paper bag. What was the science-fiction book about the inhabitants of a 2D world? This feels like that, every spindly melody stretching out like another vein in the ant farm.
Lone, Galaxy Garden (R&S Records)
What a name — Lone. So stark, it doesn't seem to have anything in common with the artist's music, which began as a kind of MDMA-soaked instrumental hip-hop before developing into a blissed-out tribute to old-school U.K. techno. Last year's Emerald Fantasy Tracks conjured the vibe of '90s raving at its most buoyant, as if gazing down at the day-glo throngs from atop a festival's Ferris wheel, breakbeats dissolving in a riot of neon pinpricks. But maybe it's precisely that sense of remove that makes the British producer Matt Cutler's name also feel so fitting — like Boards of Canada, you feel as if he's approaching his music from a beautiful place out in the country, where he's separated from the messy realities of everyday life. Like Boards of Canada, Lone uses his titles to make his synaesthetic intentions clear — "New Colour," "Lying in the Reeds," "As a Child" — and he backs them up with brilliantly hued chords, sumptuous timbres, and unusually tactile percussion. Better than mere Aphex Twin gone Instagram, it's an ecstasy rush that swaps in nostalgia as the active ingredient — an i-dose, in other words, that's actually worth the trip.
Le K, Freewheel (Karat)
Le K, a.k.a. Sylvain Garcia, has been active in Paris' underground house and techno scene for awhile, recording for labels like Circus Company and Floppy Funk; his early releases explored a kind of chunky, off-kilter house that compared to the styles of fellow French producers like Ark and Krikor. (I don't know what it is, but for a moment there, half the French scene had a "k" sound in its name, from the Karat and Circus Company labels to the aforementioned artists plus Skat, Cabannem and Chloé; in that sense, Le K felt almost like a metonym for the French underground.)
But Le K's debut album, Freewheel, doesn't seems to come from any specific place. There are certain aspects — clicky percussion, digitally abraded samples, a generally dusky, repetitive vibe — that suggest a link to the minimal techno of the mid 2000s, but Freewheel is far more lush, fleshed out with analog synthesizers, live drums, and judicious woodwinds; stylistically, the album ranges from jewel-toned hip hop to deep, ruminative house. "25th February Anatomy" reminds me a little of the dreamy scope of Roman Flügel's "How to Spread Lies" or Mano Le Tough's "Stories," with a touch of Four Tet; "Musique for End of Vida" funnels Bristol bass music through Flying Lotus' lysergic lens, ending up somewhere else entirely. You can hear his compatriot Pepe Bradock's influence on chord-heavy brooders like "Cloud in Mouth," while "Weird Dance Cabinet" flashes back on Rephlex's grittiest moments on the dance floor. Taken together, though, it makes for a singular vision, and an album that doesn't sound like anything else out there. Getting to know it feels like unplugging from the data stream, and it feels good.
Various, Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 (Chocolate Industries)
The Chicago label Chocolate Industries was a staple of my listening into the early 2000s, as records from Push Button Objects, East Flatbush Project, Caural, and Prefuse 73 explored the overlap between hip-hop and abstract electronic music; but I tuned out before Lady Sovereign and the Cool Kids took things in a different direction. Now, after a two-year hiatus, Chocolate Industries has returned with a very different kind of project, the sort you might expect from Stones Throw or the Numero Group. Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 collects 17 tracks of outsider soul and lo-fi electronic funk, most of it originally released on private-press LPs or tiny, long- forgotten independent labels. Compiled by archivist Dante Carfagna and with liner notes from Numero Group's Rob Sevier, it's a spellbinding collection of black American music from the fringes. Starship Commander Woo Woo's "Mastership" is a reverb-soaked foray into electronic pop that suggests both Kraftwerk and early New Order, as well as the roughed-up sonics of Dutch electro; Spontaneous Overload's haunting "Money" brings inner-city realism to lilting, atonal disco. The collection extends in many directions — Casiotone gospel, synth blues, and warped electro-funk — and the liner notes stress the way this extraordinary music came from otherwise ordinary people. These weren't Motown heavy-hitters or credentialed avant-gardists. Starship Commander Woo Woo was a Kansas City mobile-disco DJ; Spontaneous Overthrow's Nathaniel Woolridge was a manic-depressive military veteran who recorded little else. Sevier is right on the money in his description of the material as an "ocean of sound that is in turn peaceful, bizarre, funky, and often humbly ahead of its time."
Francis Bebey, African Electronic Music 1975-1982 (Born Bad Records)
Spanning roughly the same era as Personal Space, this record also focuses on "outsider" electronic music, but from a different angle. Brought up on Western styles and instruments, and educated at the Sorbonne and NYU, Cameroon's Francis Bebey studied Spanish classical guitar and led jazz bands before finding his way back to African traditional music as a researcher for UNESCO; he was in his forties when he began recording his distinctive brand of Afropop, publishing more than 20 albums before he died, in 2001, at the age of 72. The anthology's title is slightly misleading; this isn't so much "electronic music" as it is idiosyncratic, border-hopping jazz fusion that happens to use synthesizers and rhythm boxes. But who cares? Whatever you call it, it's brilliant.
I hear a less frantic Tom Zé in "Wuma Te," and "Fleur Tropicale" also sounds like an African response to Brazilian Tropicalía; the overdriven "Agatha" makes me imagine, however perversely, a hotel bar band whose members secretly treasure copies of the Monks' Black Monk Time. Then there are the kitschy picture postcards of "Pigmy Love Song" and "Sahel," or the groovily political "La Condition Masculine," which sets a chattering drum machine against swinging-'60s Hammonds and a spoken-word excursus, in French, on the masculine condition. (It strikes me as a less deranged version of Chief Kooffreh, a strange, prolific contemporary musician who shows us what happens when outsider artists get distribution on CD Baby.)
My favorite, though, is the opening "New Track," a deadly funky jam suffused in cowbells, thumb piano, and funk guitar. The rhythm is a loose weave of offbeat accents, and the lyrics feel equally oblique. "I want a banana, more freedom, and dance on a new track"? and "Don't give me bananas, potatoes, and yam at the same time"? But it all becomes clear at the end, as Bebey chides, "Believe me, there's something wrong with the system / We need a change to come / A new order / Cultural, political, economic, whatever / A new order, something to make us feel free to eat our banana and dance on a new track / Oh yes, a new track, that's what we need! / Banana is white. Potatoes are white, more or less / Yam is definitely white. Oh, come on, don't we have any other color left? / Come on, new track! / Oh, go find another color, another color for your life!"