- Middlebrow music is better than middlebrow anything else. Of course I'm biased—every arts partisan should be. I realize, of course, that "downtempo," a term that radiates palms-up-shrug consensus, is even maybe a little lower than middlebrow by now. There are lots of reasons it should be. But not many apply to Bonobo's resonant fourth album.
A decade into his career, Simon Green's ear has sharpened to a degree that rivals anyone's. Black Sands sparkles with dozens of tiny details but you never lose their outlines; Green's structures are shapely but feel loosely draped. On "1009" you certainly notice the way parts of the percussion gently shift timbre, the roundness of the low end, the dry slurp of some of the filtering—it's easy to hear it strictly as a piece of production. But for all its fleeting, phantom touches, a simple underlying keyboard riff keeps it legible from a distance, and enticing. Green has steadily increased the amount of real-time instrumentation over his career, and it helps make Black Sands occupy a room as smartly as it does a pair of headphones.
Green isn't stuck in some mythical head-nodding 1995, though. "Kiara" is a good example: the bass's centrality to the mix is a given, but it's got an infrared glow that makes it feel closer to a modern dubstep (or even wonky) track, and an occasional blipping keyboard pattern has a distinctly purple-via-Joker feel to it. Not that "Kiara" couldn't have been released (and fit in nicely) in 1995. It's just that Green seems interested in right now, which is maybe why he sounds so good in it.
Of course, you aren't going to figure a record like this to have excellent lyrics as well as music, and you get some bleh poeticism here. "Heavy, soothing / A gentle symphony," is what Andreya Triana sings on "Stay the Same," its vagueness only amplified by the fact that Green's production isn't merely some Vaseline-smeared-lens version of small-combo jazz and/or Ultimate Breaks & Beats. We can get sick of it later, when enough bistros and cafes catch on. It deserves the exposure.
04. Eyesdown feat. Andreya Triana
05. El Toro
06. We Could Forever
08. All in Forms
09. The Keeper feat. Andreya Triana
10. Stay the Same feat. Andreya Triana
12. Black Sands