Sketchbook (Warp)

There's something puzzling going on here. Rather, there's almost nothing going on here -- so few melodic lines, so little variation, so little of anything that would be clearly and unambiguously interesting. But the whole of the album is more interesting with every listen. It's just a little puzzling where that interest is coming from.

The tracks on Sketchbook alternate between (roughly) two types: heavy hip-hop beats with some minimal tones falling around them and nearly beatless drone poems. On the hip-hop style tracks, the instrument design seems to take a junior-high-school band room as its aesthetic model. The kick drums sound woody and broken, patched over with duct tape. The vibes have been dropped down the stairs a few times. The snares need a good tightening. It's a decidedly dirty, loose, organic sound. One track, "Upstairs," stands out as an immediately likable piece of electro, and its decisive melodic line and intricate hi-hat overload emerge from the soupier tunes around it like a spark in the dusk, and just in time.

The more droning work here is pleasing in the same way as that of Oval, and for the same reason. For anyone who listens to a lot of electronic music, with its clearly delineated elements and its rhythmic one-upsmanship, the emergence of this kind of anti-rhythmic tone painting is a relief. It's as if the water dripping on your forehead has finally been shut off.

The good news is that Req is not another Oval, nor is he another studious Autechre apprentice à la Brothomstates. There is a definite Req thing. It's a cousin of dub -- emotionally static, down-tempo, sparse, spaced out, of which the most richly rewarded listener is a passive, detached observer, not a hyped-up novelty seeker. Sketchbook isn't just a title; it's an instruction on how to approach this CD. You are not in the Warp museum here, where the masters hang ponderously on high white walls. No, Req is a graffiti artist, part of an invisible army of covertly assertive gift-givers who put their art into ugly places, whose skill creates an unexpected, transportive environment, where your train comes around a corner and suddenly there's something strange and wonderful on an old brick wall and you think, how the hell did that get there?

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