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TA-KU: Beat Sketches Vol. 1
Judging a beat-maker's album is a little unconventional. It's harder to judge composition and technical aspects of musicianship, especially when sampling and computers are involved. But as music has evolved and changed throughout history, so have the means to critique them.
Beat Sketches Vol. 1 is a collection of one-shot singles and other specifically written songs made by Australian producer, TA-KU, in homage to the late Jun Seba – better known by his stage name, Nujabes.
TA-KU draws heavy inspiration from Nujabes' style, blending together hip-hop beats, full and round kick drums combined with crisp snares and claps, with sampled elements of jazz to create an ambient and chilled-out vibe that is carried very nicely throughout the album.
One of the biggest challenges in this type music is making sure all elements of the tracks sit well within the mix. This is, of course, bearing in mind that these elements are, more often than not, compiled through sampling vinyl records which creates a stark difference in sound between it and the digitally created sounds made by the artist. At the same time no producer wants to lose the vintage sound of a vinyl record in his samples.
With all that said, TA-KU does an exceptional job of making everything sound his own. The art of sampling can easily be seen by an outsider as stealing someone else's composition, but the true skill behind it isn't extracting segments of audio off a record, but rather manipulating that extract until it becomes your own.
With ten tracks off the album, each individual track leads you very smoothly into the next. Never losing the broken, triplet-infused hip-hop beats that give the songs their movement, but at the same time, never jeopardising the soulful strings, brass, pianos and jazzy bass lines.
Fans of the late hip hop legends J Dilla and Nujabes will love this album. Both being huge inspirations to TA-KU, you can really feel the elements of their approach to instrumental hip-hop come to life throughout Beat Sketches Vol. 1.
One of the shortest tracks on the album is ‘DMT Song’. Created with the help of bassist/vocalist, Thundercat, it is the most vocally dense song on the record. Slow and dreamy, with high-pitched, slightly dissonant, vocals, it's a good intro to the next track, ‘The Nightcaller’. Aptly titled, this song features a groovy dance bass underneath a synthesizer melody that sounds ideal for waving your arms around on the dance floor.
‘Getting There’, with vocals by Niki Randa, is reminiscent of Massive Attack. Not only because of the elongated vocals, but the muffled bass beat and dreamy bell sounds could certainly also have spawned from the brains of 3D and Daddy G. The same goes for ‘Hunger’; a song that sounds like it was recorded underwater and also features Randa. Its spacious melody is broken up by a bridge with echoing vocals and harpsichord-like keyboards.
Erykah Badu is the only vocalist to appear on the album that Flying Lotus hasn’t worked with previously. Her vocals work really well on the African sounding track ‘See Thru To U’ - hopefully, Badu will become incorporated into Ellison’s fixed team of vocalists.
‘Putty Boy Strut’ sounds like a broken toy gone mental, with a catchy musical theme that returns in the deeper layers of ‘Me Yesterday/Corded’.
‘Electric Candyman’ features vocals by Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke, and is a slow track with male and female vocal melodies mixed together in a way that almost sounds disorienting. Yorke’s voice is hardly recognisable, which seems like a waste considering his great, and highly distinguishable, vocal abilities.
If you’ve watched last year’s Up In The Air, then you’ve probably heard Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ swanky rendition of ’This land is your land'. Their song is a cover that bears no resemblance to the slice-of-Americana original; to call it merely a cover would be dismissive of the Dap’s talent. What comes as a shocker, though, is that this groovy ballad wasn’t recorded decades ago in a better time as its nuance suggests; it was actually recorded in 2005.
Sharon Jones is an unglamorous diva in her own right. The 54-year-old started singing at a young age, often imitating her idol James Brown. By her twenties, she was a fixture on the funk and disco scene in New York . Unable to land herself a record deal, Jones performed as a backup vocalist for other recording artists until this diamond-in-the-ruff was rediscovered. By the early 2000s, her friends assembled The Dap Kings as her backup band.
I Learned The Hard Way opens with a roar that proclaims it an instant classic. ‘The Game of Love‘ is a heartfelt diatribe against the hardships of love, and that notion is echoed throughout the record, from the title track, ’Without a Heart‘ and ’Give It Back‘, just to name a few. Jones is upfront and confessional, and her lyrics are effortless and full of ghetto candour; yet beneath that tormented crust is a very invigorative filling that will lift you up.
The soul and funk sensibilities employed by the groovy bunch are not just a nod to the Motown days; it’s a full-blown obsession. The band turned their back to digital recording and constructed their own studio with vintage analogue equipment to create their textured hard-hitting sound. It’s by no means a gimmick; the production of the album sounds crystal clear without the digital artificiality.
The album plays more like a greatest hits anthology and is a great antidote to the panicky strides of FM radio. Just pop it in and enjoy the smooth ride. And to anyone who ever complained that they just don’t make them like they used to anymore; Jones and her daps are about to prove you wrong.