Actress, R.I.P

[Honest Jon’s Records]

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In his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds writes about the shapeshifting tendencies of Darren Cunningham’s Actress project: “Actress… describes certain of his tracks as ‘studies’: ‘Hubble’, for instance, is a ‘study’ of Prince’s ‘Erotic City’, while ‘Always Human’ is almost completely made out of sounds from The Human League’s ‘Human'” (Reynolds, 178). This is hardly surprising. Last year’s “Rainy Dub” was described by its label Honest Jon’s as the “Son Of Sleng Teng,” and the list of comparisons extends well into the hypothetical, through to Gemini, Shake, or Pan Sonic. And as common as it is to read mention of unconventional sampling techniques or gritty fidelities, this, thus far, has been the project’s true focus. Cunningham may cite overt signifiers, but it’s the almost amateurish way he covers them that’s been so charming. Still, it should only take one listen to the rippling crackle-beats (Jan Jelinek circa Loop-finding-jazz-records gone hip-hop?) of “I Can’t Forgive You” from his first album, Hazyville to be assured of his technical prowess. I’ve come to picture his back-catalog as the work of a producer who, obsessed with, say, Juan Atkins, quixotically sets about trying to recreate various Model 500 tracks in his bedroom using only samples and a broken groovebox. And then somehow, before each track is finished, Atkins himself manages to drop by to whisper the slightest advice, or give it a friendly nudge away from pastiche. Thus far, he’s walked the tightrope between crudeness and polish.

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Cunningham claims Milton’s Paradise Lost — a book that arguably takes the ultimate shapeshifter, Satan, as its hero — as a primary influence on his latest LP, R.I.P. However, the results show him eschewing these mélanges of ramshackle genre studies in favor of a record that is considerably more precise in its geometry. It’s imbued with a purity of focus first glimpsed on tracks from Hazyville — “Again the Addiction,” “Crushed,” “Green Gal,” in particular — and which was mostly lost on its longer, hookier follow-up, Splazsh. The latter record was widely characterized as somewhat scrappy, and Cunningham seems to have taken these descriptions (though they were rarely intended as slights) to heart. Certainly, many of his sonic trademarks remain — pumping side-chain compression, silvery digital crustiness — but R.I.P is primarily dictated by airy, clean-cut melodic motifs, which give the impression it was composed as a suite. The record’s title suggests rest and peace as well as the ultimate gravity of death, and many of its tracks seem to strive for a combination of these auras.

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“Marble Plexus,” for example, mixes chugging, squashed buzzes and hisses — some as hi-hats, some as background static — with tranquil, warbling pop lines. “Jardin” lives up to its title; its incredibly delicate, plinking piano lilts like manicured flowers, while minute, treated static squelches approximate a broken antenna, or maybe just wind, in the background. “Raven” is a gentle joy whose kicks are immaculately cushioned, and its glinting melody is surely one of the album’s prettiest moments, while the segment that precedes it — running from “Serpent” through “Tree Of Knowledge” — is suffused with a queasy sense of foreboding.

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Apart from his 2004 debut, No Tricks, Cunningham has never specifically made music for the dance floor, but if R.I.P is “missing” something — if we’re operating under the foolish pretense that every album should contain all facets of its creator — it’s the kind of clipped, tunnel-vision dance tracks that populated Splazsh. The scuffed, strutting drama of “The Lord’s Graffiti” sounds like a holdout from those sessions, and “IWAAD,” with its destroyed house bass line and chopped rave-diva vocal, sticks out like a sore thumb. Perhaps the forthcoming Ghettoville LP, a promised release on Cunningham’s own Werk Discs, will provide more of these kinds of moments. At any rate, it is a foolish pretense. The record’s overall austerity is frankly refreshing. And if R.I.P proves anything, it’s that Actress has moved beyond “genre study” and into a serene, engulfing style of abstraction that’s wholly his own.

Henderick AKA Thelonious Funk  on May 16, 2012 at 11:11 AM

Already frontrunner for album of the year…

JEANCLAUDENELSON  on May 16, 2012 at 4:25 PM

Sorry Actress never has been a genre study, all the contrary…….in 2009 there were only an album for me and his name was Hazyville….there were no fresher thing back then and now…..i cant forgive you its just a bad example to show his production prowress since its one of best tracks…..just beatifull …one of those tracks that put you in a certain mood.The jan jelinek refernce its totally out of point…..Actress its more like bruce gilbert ….beatifull sound for the sake of it.Im really feelin R.I.P and to some point in can be said that its his best album but its time to recognize Hazyville as something more than a collection of amateur skectches…..Props to FACT MAG since they were the only ones who were into it.

Dennis Rodman  on May 18, 2012 at 11:18 AM

Really enjoyed this review.


Little White Earbuds May Charts 2012 | Little White Earbuds  on June 1, 2012 at 10:02 AM

[…] Johnson] (buy) 09. Lone, “As A Child (ft. Machinedrum)” [R&S Records] (buy) 10. Actress, “The Lord’s Graffiti” [Honest Jon's Records] (buy)Staff ChartsPer Bojsen-Moller 01. Madteo & Sensational, […]

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