Epstein y El Conjunto When Man is Full He Falls Asleep

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2010]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: hip hop, electronic, folktronica
Others: Helado Negro, Savath y Savalas, Prefuse 73, School of Seven Bells

This album is basically a beat tape; it’s a collection of head-nodding tracks with a lot of hip-hop in their DNA. But its creator, Roberto Carlos Lange, doesn’t describe himself as a producer; rather, his website identifies him as a sound artist. Along with several albums and film scores under his belt, his work as an artist includes several collaborative kinetic sound sculptures: assemblages made up of things like garbage cans, empty bottles, and other miscellany, wired and programmed to play beats on themselves. He sits at a laptop while a cardboard box full of empty beers jiggles rhythmically, clanging out something that bears an uncanny resemblance to Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 hit “The Message.” These sculptures are impressive and unique, but some observers might react to them with puzzlement, being tempted to write them off as mere novelties. Trash art has a way of mocking ideas about beauty and utility, but this tendency to find utility in uselessness, to find beauty in common ugliness, has a strong precedence in American art. It’s quintessentially hip-hop: the spirit bold and capable enough to build what it wants to build with any materials that happen to be lying around. It’s a street-level style of making art where vitality constantly defies the poverty of means, making the raw materials of art necessary only according to the barest sense of necessity.

Accordingly, Lange’s newest album as Epstein, When Man is Full He Falls Asleep, hobbles its beats together from all manner of homegrown percussion loops and far-out song samples. The range of styles is too broad to catalogue, from “El Condor Depierta,” driven by shakers and a rootsy double bass loop, to “Temporary,” whose glitch-ridden samplers take up residence next to discordant synth drones and occasional guitar stabs. It’s difficult to tell where any of it comes from, and at any time, it’s usually impossible to tell what might come next. Yet in spite of the opportunities afforded by unpredictability, Lange doesn’t rely on the element of surprise. A lot of worlds collide in his music, but he doesn’t try to get much mileage out of juxtaposition. Other sample collage wizards like J Dilla or The Avalanches would sometimes add weight to the listener experience by using their sources’ contexts as reference points, borrowing against a collective musical memory like it was a bank account. Epstein’s tracks rely only on their own energy, living their brief lives without worrying too much about the intelligibility of context. They can often be self-satisfied and closed in on themselves, like a man who is full and wants to go to sleep.

The title of this album is as much of a clue to its nature as the reputation of its creator as a free-spirited collector; it’s a record of sleepiness and satiety. “I can Memorize you (can you?)” and “Needed” sound peaceful to the point of drowsiness, and “BgBgBg (offset tape splice)” sputters along at a halting pace, carried along by a momentum that somehow lacks momentum, like a thought that a man ponders but never speaks aloud. And the album is wallpapered with slapback delay. Since Lange is as likely to apply it to vocals as to drums, it can be easy to overlook but still creates a distancing effect that is hard to ignore. Equally ubiqitous is the amniotic FX-soaked haze that indie bedroom musicians wear as predictably and as thoughtlessly as Chuck Taylors. But Lange’s solo recordings are more likely to suggest the gregarious vibe of summer block parties than the numb suburban monotony of somewhere like New Jersey. This surfeit of studio fuckery has the effect of closing things off.

While Lange’s other musical projects with the likes of Helado Negro and Savath y Savalas thrive on the openness that comes from collaboration, When Man Is Full seems to be a labor of love sufficient to itself. There is love in these songs, but they are sung to those who are already smitten. It’s like a welcoming house that’s too small to support its owner’s hospitality. “A Lost Animal,” which features ethereal vocal work by School of Seven Bells in its first half and the added fire of a guest drummer in its second, works so well as the album’s de facto single because it manages to reach out in a way that most of the album fails to do. When Man Is Full can be surprising, and it can be lively, but much of the time, it’s the sound of a drowsy and well-fed man who is thinking to himself, humming along without providing space for a listener.

Links: Epstein y El Conjunto - Asthmatic Kitty

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