Gavin Castleton Dark Age

[Self-Released; 2004]

Styles: hip hop, jazz rap, spoken word
Others: Grüvis Malt

An artist who is earnest and serious with their work, confident, yet humble in approach and presentation to the public, and offers true substance, is an exhilarating find. Such is the case of Gavin Castleton. A product of the genre-bending, Rhode Island based Grüvis Malt, Castleton is a veteran of the little state’s budding music scene, having worked with acts as diverse as underground rapper Sage Francis, and buzzworthy rock band Monty. In 2004, Gavin took time away from these projects to release two albums, Hypotenuse, and Dark Age. Two separate albums with entirely different moods (though inspired by common themes, as Castleton explains on his website), the latter is a fiercely original statement. An ode to individualism and a scathing critique of our mainstream culture; at the same time, Castleton explores and bears his personal demons in poignant fashion, all the while refusing to take himself too seriously. 

The second track, “Lemon,” is a hugely impressive rant against hip hop. Rather than take cheap shots, however, it’s immediately clear that Castleton cares deeply about the genre, and adopts the medium to get his message across. Over abstract jazz riffs, the makeshift MC takes the rap community to task for its rampant sexism, homophobia, and lazy reliance on catchphrases. Articulating these concerns with startling clarity, without ever sacrificing a single ounce of musicality: “Sampling one bar of an obscure record/Looping it/And blurting out forced rhymes in three minute increments is not all that FRESH/…In fact/FRESH is not all that fresh.” Perhaps to prove that hip hop is about conveying raw emotion and perspective through spoken word and not about the superficial excess which has grown to be emblematic, Castleton remains steeped in his own original take on it for the duration of the album.

If he is frustrated with the public around him, Gavin Castleton is clearly even more disturbed by himself. On “90 East,” perhaps the strongest track on the album, Castleton channels a deep melancholy felt one night after a concert to portray the sheer torture of loneliness. It’s not done in a whining, emo-ish manner, however. Instead, a haunting piano minor chord progression accompanies Castleton as he uses a night drive on a highway as, “so obviously a metaphor for despair.” 

To be sure, it’s not all anger here. If “Lemon” is the most impressive track, and “90 East” is the strongest, “I’m Not Really a Rapper” is the most fun. Over a Shuggie Otis, soul-infused sample, Gavin whimsically turns the standard “musician needs a day job” story on its head. Each verse gets more ludicrous than the last; midway through Castleton avows that his true passion is as a Greek chef, bragging to his audience: “By way of your taste buds/I can put you on the island of Crete,” and promising them that “Fast food is my future!/Making music is my past!” On “Recuperation II,” Castleton at once pays tribute to his New England adolescence, and also to the forefathers of conscious hip hop, a clear implication of who he thinks is the small light flickering in the stale mainstream rap air.

Though the music on the album more than speaks for itself, Gavin goes the extra mile: on his website, he offers a live video of “90 East,” full explanation for the meaning of every song on the record, how each song was written and recorded, and an essay about what motivated him to write and simultaneously release two albums in the first place. In a sea of independent artists, Gavin seems to understand his best option is to remain sincere, put forth his art and want for the best. For his willingness to be so open with his work, and particularly for the very high and unique quality of his music, we owe it to him to listen and spread his sound.

1. Handshakingglitterteeth-photo-op
2. Lemon
3. The Tarpit
4. Ransom
5. I’m Not Really a Rapper
6. Absent
7. 90 East
8. The Great American Bottleneck
9. Recuperation II
10. This Is Not…
11. Some People Live Between the Holidays
12. Recall

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