Pretty Lights, ‘A Color Map’ (Pretty Lights Music)
Release Date: July 2, 2013
Label: Pretty Lights Music
If EDM is the biggest thing to happen to popular music since hip-hop, then perhaps the gentleman otherwise known as Pretty Lights is the genre’s Will Smith. If EDM’s the second coming of the orgiastic arena-filling heyday of rock’n’roll, maybe he’s also its Sammy Hagar: unapologetically populist, adequately talented, basically just in the right place at the right time, not content to drive 55, and very content to get everyone jiggy with it, now and forevermore.
That’s not the worst spot on the team, and Derek Vincent Smith plays his position well — he releases his music for free (all of it), produces a weekly podcast called “The Hot Shit” for Sirius XM (he’s up to 85 broadcasts at press time), has millions of views on his meticulously curated YouTube channel, and has rocked the tube tops off hundreds of thousands of satisfied festivalgoers, from Bonnaroo to Electric Daisy Carnival to freakin’ Red Rocks. His weapon of choice is a brand of bombastic, sample-rich electro-hop that breaks very little new ground from the days when guys like DJ Shadow pioneered it, but when juiced up with 1.21 jiggawatts of EDM sizzle — more effects, quicker changes, bigger builds, and, well, an extremely pretty light show — it drives dance tents apeshit.
So then, here’s a question: Does it even matter that his new album is insipid bluster, the EDM equivalent of a screensaver? Smith, an affable self-promoter, is exceedingly proud of the process he’s employed for A Color Map of the Sun, as chronicled in an accompanying documentary (sigh): tapping live musicians, recording them in a half-dozen different studios, pressing the results to vinyl, sampling that, and adding his trademark bevy of digital effects. As our friendly French cyborgs recently demonstrated, such tales of EDM artists rediscovering studio craft do resonate, on one fairly obvious condition: The result has to feel like a studio adventure! Whereas Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was lavishly rich, Smith’s treatment of his session players manages to flatten all human serendipity and rhythmic nuance — it might as well have been self-produced in a bedroom with minimal inspiration, and certainly doesn’t live up to a guest list that includes Soulive, the Harlem Gospel Choir, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Take “Yellow Bird,” with its meandering guitar figure, quantized breakbeat lope, and lazily psychedelic lyrics: “Yellow Bird, don’t fly away, not today.” Or take “Press Pause,” with its brooding bass line, quantized breakbeat lope, and lazily psychedelic lyrics: “Everything gets older over time / But the world is spinning slower in my mind.” “Around the Block” features Talib Kweli, which is appropriate, because almost every track here mimics the hazy boom-bap soul of late-’90s/early-’00s hip-hop, except groups like Blackalicious and Souls of Mischief did all that way better.
But again, does any of this really matter? Pretty Lights will tour in support of this thing. He’ll chop and screw it, intercut it with whatever the hot shit is that night, add pyrotechnics and dancing bears, etc. Everyone’ll be high, and the fact that Color Map was released with considerable fanfare as an artist album (the title’s taken “from the writings of Isaac Newton,” BTW) will be an afterthought. Does anyone remember Big Willie Style?