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DVA - Pretty Ugly

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Artist: DVA

Album: Pretty Ugly

Label: Hyperdub

Review date: May. 2, 2012

Question: If you name a song “Reach The Sun,” what should it sound like? Magnificent? Incendiary? Noble? Cosmic? Should there be strings or their synthesized likeness, suggesting Icarus-like soaring? Or perhaps some monolithic brightness, high on the neck of some washed out/blown out guitar? I could imagine swirling bombastic drums, or perhaps simply a huge melody, right out in the front. If presented with this title, one might reasonably ask “what would Sun Ra do?” Certainly Coltrane tackled similar territory on Interstellar Space, but maybe free jazz isn’t your thing. Check in with Holst then, or do the opposite of whatever Silver Apples of the Moon did. Or just go outside, look at the sun for a while, and then crank it, I’m sure it’ll sound close enough.

Answer: Whatever you do, do not make the most prominent sound in your track a blase, clipped “muh.” Because having set up such lofty, luminous expectations, you owe your audience at the very least an epic, overwrought, Mars Volta level fail. Producing a serviceable, underwhelming, R&B tinged interlude with a honky, alienating “muh” right in the middle (and planting it at the front of your album no less) simply will not do. Either change the name or change the tune, it doesn’t matter which, but this cognitive dissonance won’t play.

Herein lies the major problem with DVA’s new album, Pretty Ugly. Running through the future bass playbook, the accomplished London producer demonstrates a thorough understanding of how syncopation, jazzy harmonies, 8-bit arpeggios, post-garage, Lauryn Hill-tinged vox and unquantized swirl should all be deployed in 2012. The music coming out of the U.K. right now that’s speaking this language is certainly some of the most exciting and relevant in the world today, and DVA’s at the heart of it all. Sadly, the one thing he doesn’t demonstrate is good ol’ vision; Pretty Ugly is neither very pretty nor particularly ugly, rather a lumpen, unengaging mess.

It’s kinda of weird that a record which seamlessly integrates as much as DVA does here, with hints of jungle, dubstep, R&B, funk, grime, garage and IDM all bouncing around, should seem so bland. But isn’t that the point of the U.K.? It’s rather expected that the Brits will be up on their club history, having been a mecca for all manner of electronica since rave exploded over there in the late ’80s. Besides, genre fluency doesn’t mean much if it’s not working for you, and DVA has taken a trip down a production wormhole. Grooves either get fucked with in predictable, 3-against-2 polyrhythmic presets, or get so turned on their own head that they don’t hold.

This would be fine if the melodic content were stronger, but where there should be a bonafide hook, DVA often opts for chords in a state of constant disruption, occasionally ornamented with irritatingly squelchy scalar runs. The effect I think is supposed to be one of constant surprise (or, ugh, intelligence), but in reality it just makes it hard to remember anything about these tracks as soon as they’re through. Not slamming enough for dancing, but too densely woven to make for engaging home listening, DVA comes off overbearing and tiresome.

Oh yeah, and there are vocals, too. Generally, they’re not very good. On one occasion, the lyrics are cringeworthy enough to make a two-minute long track into a slog. The singer AL, having discovered her man with another man, first posits “Oh my gosh, is this really real? / He’s been seeing a man, don’t know how to feel.” Well, OK “Another Man” it isn’t, but the “gosh” is kinda winning and perhaps the next line will take us a little deeper into the blindsided pathos of a scorned woman in an awkward scenario. Or not… “Why you do this / Why you do this to me?” is the (ahem) hook of the song, and its flat delivery mirrors the idiocy of the words. I can imagine AL would be upset, confused, and yes perhaps hurt. But this isn’t really about you, honey.

“Just Vybe” is a bit more tasteful, celebrating the joy that is a room of one’s own, or in this case “a space where I can get down / and just vybe.” But at 2:32, there’s not much vybing going on here; Fatima’s respectable, musicians union-quality vocals sound abruptly faded out mid-reprise, as if an embarrassed DVA got walked in on getting a little too down. “Fire Fly” covers similar not-too-far-from-Des’ree self-actualization poetics, with some enjoyably cornball soulfulness that is entirely encumbered by the clunky production. Ditto on “Madness,” where I can barely understand what Vikter Duplaix is saying under all the riff raff.

Thankfully on the final cut, aptly named “Where I Belong,” DVA pulls it together. Big, stupid trombones bleat out a funereal cadence over a trap rap caveman thomp. It’s a bit Joker-for-dummies and definitely hilariously melodramatic, but it’s also direct, emotionally clear, and fun. It doesn’t save the album by a long shot, nor does it sonically point the way forward for DVA, but hopefully he can marshal all his obvious talents towards material as enjoyable and unfettered as this. After 45 minutes of dithering, he finally reached the sun.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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