Thursday, 12 September 2013

Review: James Ferraro, Cold

The crooning R&B-styled vocals that crop up on almost every track here might come as a surprise to those who caught up with James Ferraro following his move to the LA-based Hippos in Tanks label in 2011. Since then, Far Side Virtual found room for some buried singing on just one track (‘Dream On’), while last year’s Sushi LP removed the distinct human voice altogether, reducing any vocal samples to robotic chirps and chopped-up gasps. On fifteen of Cold’s seventeen tracks, an auto-tuned Ferraro murmurs away about collapsed relationships (“You used to have my back / Now you’re fucking with my life”), John Woo visions (“Dove, dove keep shining / dove, keeps on flying”), and the tinted windows of imagined limousines. The mixtape abounds with references to classic funk and R&B (a cyborg Apollo-era James Brown is conjured up by the closing refrain of ‘Dove’), and on first listen Cold appears to be a disarmingly sincere contribution to the jaded hipster blues of so-called PBR&B, joining the ranks of Drake, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and even Kanye West (circa 808s & Heartbreak). 

To those familiar with either Night Dolls with Hairspray or any of Ferraro’s later ‘Muscleworks Inc’ recordings (such as Feed Me and On Air), this fresh persona might seem a little suspicious. Where earlier albums dealt with killer nerds, TV addicts and human cockroaches, Cold turns out to be a deadpan account of the kind of navel-gazing endemic in its target genre. The illegible vocal sample that runs throughout the self-pitying ‘Fade’, for example, is revealed (through headphones) to be an unprintable obscenity directed at the singer himself. Similarly, the lyrics to ‘Slave to Rain’ are hilariously nihilistic, a kind of ‘Pennies from Heaven’ for the HD generation, promising to “have babies and shower them with cash / Cold hard cash.” The artist’s shifting stance is most hauntingly evident in the penultimate song (‘Turned Opp’), as a distorted voice praises “LOVELY LOVELY CASH” beneath the repeated lament: “I’m just trying to live properly / Let me burn...” 

Doing for jet-lagged R&B what Zappa did for the more sickly corners of doo-wop, Cold is a stark addition to Ferraro’s ongoing account of our era and its cultural detritus.