In July 2009, East-London beatsmith Dervin, a.k.a. Gold Panda, lifted himself above the remixing masses with the drop of an original 7-inch called “Quitter’s Raga.” Tag-clouds gathered on the horizon at the moment of its birth, and the sibyls of the net declared favorable auspices. The scant, stammering chop-job pairs tabla and hand-clap, sitar, and gittar just in a way that conveys a sort of sleepy-eyed transglobal bustle. Textural yet hard-hitting, Dervin’s “Raga” transfixes through its two-minute run. But troubling questions dogged the track as it made the rounds: Did it lean too heavily on its co-opted Hindustani sample or, even worse, on its Western audience’s 19th-century sense of the exotic? Did it constitute anything beyond a novelty, a musical canapé for bloggy self-styled sophisticates? It comes as something of a surprise, then, that Lucky Shiner, the LP that now emerges from that murk of speculation, is such a compellingly human record.
Lucky Shiner feels at once painfully intimate and intercontinentally expansive. A handful of track names (“Parents,” “Marriage,” “Before We Talked,” “After We Talked”), as well as the record’s origins in Dervin’s family home in the Essex commuter-belt town of Chelmsford (which, okay, isn’t exactly Arcadia; Squarepusher’s also from there), turn out to be somewhat misleading. There’s nothing pastoral or even suburban about Gold Panda’s blipping, fluorescent sound. Instead, it’s the roaming Nipponophile in him that takes precedent, as the album zeros in on the glowing melancholy of solo travel. Any expressions of human contact come filtered through lonesome synth washes, as if our electronic pilgrim is revolving them while in the lull of transit. “Marriage,” for example, sounds less like a tribute to matrimony than a rain-sodden jaunt through Higashiyama. Although the track progresses at an airy 124 BPM with 4/4 bass kicks and snare, Gold Panda suffuses it with vinyl fuzz, drips brittle treble overhead, and submerges the whole mess at its midpoint. The most striking feature — an expertly incorporated koto loop — erodes the celebratory, House-approximating vibe with its pure, doleful sound.
Gold Panda’s jones for distinctly Eastern samples perdures, and it becomes alternately one of the most effective tools at his disposal and his greatest defect. The latter occurs on the penultimate track, “India Lately,” the album’s weakest spot. A droning drum-circle racket that fails to build and then flatlines, draped with chanting runs and sitar buzz, it’s the only moment where Lucky Shiner acquires a “world music” whiff — where Dervin finds himself on the wrong side of the subtle divide between “travel” and “tourism” due to an over-reliance on his nonnative source material. Inversely, one of the most continental joints on the album, “Snow and Taxis,” adeptly balances danceability and sonic palette using chiming glock, diffused vocals, a stammering martial beat, and nary a shamisen. There are moments, however, when Gold Panda successfully marries these two approaches, as on “Same Dream China,” where undeniably Reich-ian mallets and Chinese lute tones coalesce to form a fleecy stylistic alloy.
Most importantly, Dervin’s work as Earth-spanning sample librarian helps avoid the hobgoblin of lesser producers: sameness. The track-to-track variety ends up being one of the album’s biggest boons, as Gold Panda grafts in everything from lo-fi strums to Game Boy-sourced chip parpings. The range of BPM and breadth of tone renders any and all of the subgenre tags that have variously been ascribed to this guy misguided and bordering on clueless: downtempo, dubstep, goddamned glo-fi. Some of the songs on this record seem to have little to do with one another — for example, the purely synthetic “Vanilla Minus” runs right into folky respite of “Parents” — but the common denominator throughout is an emotional one. This is music produced in solitude, probably best enjoyed in solitude, and that feeling permeates its every second.
“You,” the superb, coruscating single whose two versions bookend the album, also provides its thesis by way of its only remotely intelligible lyrics. In the opening version, a thoroughly blitzed vocal sample warbles the words “you and me” — it states the simplest relationship possible — and Dervin chooses to sonically shatter it, make it skip, and draw it apart. Lucky Shiner deals with the disintegration of emotional bonds, and his treatment of those words is the perfect expression of that. Sure enough, on the closing version of the song, only “you” remains, longingly legato, until the beats fall out and only a desolate theremin wails.