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Akufen / Freeform / The Rip Off Artist - Blu TribunL

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Artist: Akufen / Freeform / The Rip Off Artist

Album: Blu TribunL

Label: Inflatabl

Review date: Jan. 13, 2005

It's hard to think of two musical styles with less in common than electronic music and the blues. Blues is a relatively self-restricting genre that could be defined, albeit simplistically, in terms of formal, harmonic and rhythmic constraints and a characteristic range of instrumentation and techniques. Electronica, on the other hand, can and does include a potentially limitless variety of music, the sole necessary element being the sound’s creation through the use of electronics. In fact, it might be argued that one of the few things that electronic music is not readily capable of achieving is that which is perhaps the most indispensable distinguishing element of blues music: the direct expression of pathos and human emotion.

What to do? Given several successful recent efforts at bridging electronic music and jazz (Matthew Herbert's Big Band album and the work of the Tied and Tickled Trio come to mind), an attempt to fuse electronica with blues was probably inevitable. But although jazz and blues are akin in many ways, the former is often cerebral in a way that the latter is almost inescapably spiritual. So while I don't doubt that it could be done, a truly successful fusion of electronica and blues that remains at least marginally faithful to the fundamental requirements of both forms is exceedingly hard to imagine. blu tribunL, an unfathomably titled collaborative project featuring blues-inspired works by three electronic artists, is, I'm sorry to say, about how you would imagine it.

To cut it some slack, we should recognize that it was clearly never intended to appeal to purists (as I daresay those jazz hybrid discs well might). There's little question that the artists involved have made a good show of using the inherent flexibility of their genre to incorporate many recognizable blues tropes. The album is full of 12-bar structures, loping shuffle grooves, snatches of scratchy slide guitar, and deep vocal utterances, cut and pasted into electronic pieces that fall into the general category of glitch.

That the bluesy elements lose most of their emotional expressiveness in this transplanted form is understandable, if lamentable. The project truly fails to realize its potential when the producers can’t harness any of electronica's considerable capability for subtlety, ambience and heartfelt groove. Instead, they cheekily play up and overstress their blues borrowings in the most superficial ways imaginable; form-outlining riff punches with all the restraint of "Wipeout"'s downstrokes-on-the-downbeat; snippets of sampled guitar that play like novelty soundbites; lukewarm beats that grow clunkier the more they try to approximate the blues. The Rip Off Artist's cover of "Must Be Catchin'" features vocals that sound tortured by some bizarre cybernetic disease rather than by the pangs of love.

The result is technically well executed but uninspiring gutless music that runs the gamut from clever to cute to campy to cheesy. Moby's Play, for all the brute simplicity of its working methods, had reams more emotional resonance, not to mention respect for its source material. A more appropriate point of comparison would be Stop the Panic, Luke Vibert's lounge-tronica collaboration with pedal-steel guitarist B.J. Cole, which bears a strong, if unexpected, sonic similarity to these proceedings, but felt much more comfortably self-conscious in its glibness and campiness.

Perhaps this album never intended to do all that in the first place. It's certainly a worthwhile experiment, laudable for its uniqueness and proficiency if nothing else. And after all, there's nothing inherently invalid about the idea of using of the exterior stylistic trappings of a genre without capturing its emotional core. Still, I'm left to wonder if it's an idea with much artistic merit.

By K. Ross Hoffman

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