BY NATTY MORRISON
One of the most difficult things to do in music is carve out a style all your own. All the heavy-hitters have done it; you have to be able to pull from all your influences without letting their voices bleed too deeply into your music. That task can be even more difficult for electronic artists. The traditional process of dropping sampled music and vocals in and out of tracks can lead critics to accuse them of a musical-identity heist. For Pretty Lights (aka Derek Vincent Smith), it’s nothing he’s not used to.
"One thing I've run into a lot, is people that immediately judge artists who sample as music thieves without enough of their own creativity to make good music on their own,” Smith said. “Now, with some producers, I'd say that might not be far from the truth, but I strive to always use samples in a way that brings new life and feeling to them.”
And it’s really never been a problem for him. Pretty Lights is instantly recognizable; whether you’ve heard the song before or not, within moments you KNOW it’s him. He’s soulful without losing and edge and has been making waves in the electronic community for years, with heavily spun tracks like “Sunday School” and “Finally Moving.” Smith is, if nothing else, a style unto himself, and he’s out to prove that on his terrific new EP “Spilling Over Every Side.”
Opening with a dreamy piano line, the EP’s first cut “High School Art Class” is classic Pretty Lights. Raw and gritty without leaving out any of the soul, Smith get right to work piling up the layers. As the track begins to build steam in the opening seconds, strains of a loping acoustic blend with blurts of distortion, swooping synth lines and horn stabs. Once the drums kick in, the listener is instantly transported to a head-nodding paradise, while the piano’s blue notes tumble over a soulful vocal sample that promises “Soon I will be gone from the trouble of this world.” That’s one of the most impressive features of any Pretty Lights album: he can be emotionally affecting without even realizing it.
The album gets heavier – and glitchier - on the next song, “Hot Like Dimes.” Building from pulsing synth bass and a rapid arpeggiator, the song explodes into a cacophony of hip hop vocals, grinding electric guitar chords and blasts of digitized squeals. It can be overwhelming, but it’s a thrilling ride nonetheless.
Smith finds beauty in “Let the World Hurry By,” letting an acoustic strum stretch out in front of him. It feels like watching an other-worldly deity paint in a summer sunset, beginning with earnestness and focus, until the swirling hues and tones become all too much to take. And then, without saying a word, he takes you gently by the hand, prepares for a brisk jump, and then launches you into outer space. Contemplative, down-tempo electro is soon replaced by intergalactic wobble-bass and shattering snare hits. The drums skitter along and all vocal samples are put aside. This isn’t time for Smith to hearken back to a forgotten world of blues and soul; he’s firmly in control and he knows it’s his time to shine. Once he’s finished building star-encrusted towers of thick synth blasts, he brings it all back home, finishing off with that old acoustic strum and brilliantly placed vocal riffs.
“Look Both Ways” is a nimble cut. It begins with a smoky jazz piano, while vinyl static drags through the background. It feels vintage and fresh at the same time, like a moment of déjà vu just barely out of reach. The drums groove along at an up-tempo beat, all the while Smith is deftly dropping in and out of small melodic sections and sampled pieces. It’s subtle, but noticeable if you dig a little deeper: even when he’s complex he never leads you astray.
“Forever Lost” and “A Million Tomorrows” round out the disc. The former is an explosive and incendiary fist-in-the-air cut, with the cut-up vocal line of a soulful singer trading off the lead with bombastic horn screams. The latter is a moment of cinematic conceptualization. It sounds like a slow-motion montage in a pivotal scene of a classic gangster movie, beginning in a quiet place and eventually rising to an intense crescendo at the album’s close. It’s soulful; it’s dark; it’s over-the-top in the best way possible. Essentially, it’s Pretty Lights. And who would want it any other way?
The functionality you are trying to use is for members only. Would you like to sign in?