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Maxmillion Dunbar - Cool Water

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Artist: Maxmillion Dunbar

Album: Cool Water

Label: Ramp

Review date: Oct. 20, 2010

The Capital Beltway is a 64-mile stretch of interstate that surrounds, and just barely bisects Washington, D.C. Its eight lanes of highway, officially known as I-495 and I-95, circle the nation’s capital through Maryland and Virginia, providing spur access to and from the city and its exurban sprawl, and saves the area’s motorists the hassles associated with driving directly through a major metropolis, to say nothing of how it offers strategic avoidance of any parts of the city perceived as “dangerous.”

This roadway’s existence gives substance to the ideas behind Andrew Field-Pickering’s debut album as Maximillion Dunbar. Hailing from Silver Spring, Md., AFP steers his whip toward the middle lane on Cool Water, away from the left lane taillight crush of his other outlet, avant-verse crew Food for Animals. Pickering neatly encapsulates a swath of ‘80s and early ‘90s urban culture, from electro-boogie to go-go to hip-hop to ambient bliss, across eight discrete tracks. Cool Water acts as a path to the malls in the suburbs that contained all the clean, fresh gear needed to rock the look and the style needed to come off legit in the city, an oasis for the people who traveled in both directions to buy (or rack) as many Polos, bottles of Joop!, rap tapes and new kicks as life would allow them to get away with.

On the first few spins, that sort of capitalist-driven response to “making it” back in the B.B. era (before backpacks) was the immediate sticking point I needed in order to find a way into Max Dunbar’s music. Opener “Pretty Please” works that vibe right away, placing a nightlife motif that’s pure November ‘83, the D.C. junkyard beat percolating above synth stabs, computational buzzing, Eastern vocal chants and crisp, melodic bells, with the sort of lossy, Dolby-free hiss you’d expect from a cassette tape or radio broadcast. “Sno Mega” follows, setting the tone for the rest of the album: bubbling, fluid clusters of synth melodies flow like water, transposed down the scale in cascading effect before the drum machine, backward beats and koto patches hustle this one along in fine Rockit-meets-Art of Noise form. Around the two-minute mark, the light mood and mid-tempo rhythm start to cloud over, and you’re stuck behind the dump truck in the southeast corner of town, and wintry mix has you white-knuckling the steering wheel, hoping you can get home before the storm really hits.

“Way Down” continues along, more of the elements stripped away, as traffic slows down even further – nothing but tumbling synth, jittery vocal samples and a skeletal beat that eases in the record’s mellower second half. Apart from the joyous 808 movement-clothes tumble of “Rhythm Track for Rashied Ali,” the remainder of Cool Water rolls into a contemplative, yet still pulsating agenda that breaks rank from the harder-sounding tracks that precede it. “Lemon & Lime” wanders gingerly through a forest of gently percolating synth and a screwed-down vocal sample that mentions how “music makes you feel like you have somebody else’s memories, like you’re looking at somebody else’s pictures.” Punctuated by the whirr of a camera, it sounds like something you might hear on The Weather Channel local forecast in 1985. Depending on how the four-head VCR quality of music-as-utility strikes you, this may have been where you were headed all along: home, wherever that is, someplace warm against the cold night and endless commute around town, your hand reaching for the next rung, no matter how high it goes. Closer “Breathe What U Say,” with its one-note pulse and extensive Vocoder treatment, plays like a tribute to Villalobos’ “Easy Lee,” filtered through blunt smoke and the ghost of Roger Troutman. All of these are good things and worth celebrating.

Cool Water isn’t out to break ground, even though it has all the tricks to do so. It acknowledges the past instead of recapturing it. This, too, is good. The jumpy first half and between-the-sheets finale, and the retro-minded tools and production techniques lend themselves to a re-examination of the class divide against the creative urge, to the comfort and satisfaction we’re all seeking in our lives against the human cost of getting there, and how who we are and where we come from seem to endlessly complicate this endeavor. The tracks here have the confidence of someone who’s made it on some level, but Max Dunnie is wise enough to not let us know where that might be. It’s too tough to separate the music from the futuristic identity it once held, and to separate those notions from the sociopolitical chill outside it. We circle around and around, looking for safety even though we tell ourselves we have it, because we know that we don’t. The luxury to relax doesn’t last for long, and all that gear we bought or stole ends up in the back of the closet, in the thrift store, on the backs of those less fortunate. Field-Pickering has chosen a distinct and memorable way to remind us of the cycle.

By Doug Mosurock

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