Unagi Keepin’ it Eel

[442; 2004]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: sound samples, hip-hop, easy listening
Others: Quantic Soul Orchestra, Peanut Butter Wolf, Broadway Project, Controller 7

The self-titled 2003 debut album from Bay Area artist Unagi was a refreshing change from the average run-of-the-mill sample-based hip hop we're used to being served. A decidedly funky record, it was easy for me to think of the album as the "lighter side" of the Express Rising debut record that came out at roughly the same time. While the Express Rising record was rooted in the murk and darkness which usually pervade albums by RJD2, DJ Shadow, U.N.K.L.E., etc, the Unagi record was a pure expression of the joy and energy of pure funk, while still remaining true to the "sample-based" aspect of instrumental hip hop. In short, Unagi's album was simply infinitely more groove-based than the majority of the genre's staples.

On his sophomore effort Keepin' it Eel, Unagi takes the music a step further, leaning more toward instrumentals seemingly influenced by the arrangements of '70s artists such as The Isley Brothers, Isaac Hayes, Barry White, and Quincy Jones. What's surprising about these pieces is that, although they are cut-and-paste, sample-based assemblages, for the most part they sound as if they are being performed by an actual band. Guitar solos, vibraphone solos, guitar solos, flute solos, and the occasional soulful backing vocals are an integral part of the music presented here.

Another interesting characteristic of Keepin' it Eel is Unagi's decision to use as his source material R&B of the late-'70s/early '80s post-disco variety. In choosing to focus on this particular sub-genre, Unagi demonstrates an uncanny ability to turn the "cheesy" into something immensely listenable and patently enjoyable. But what's most important to note in listening to the album, however, is that underneath every groove and electro-funk beat is a beautiful string arrangement that serves as the glue holding everything together. As an added bonus, the record starts out strong and seems to just get better as it progresses.

There is also a chopped-up feel to Keepin' it Eel that likens it to the records of Machine Drum and Prefuse 73. Like Prefuse 73's Scott Herren, Unagi creates unique pieces using chopped up bits of other, larger pieces spliced together. In Unagi's case, however, he uses a macro versus a micro approach to his sound collages. Rather than splicing the bits and pieces together at the "note" level, Unagi's approach seems to be more of a verse- and chorus-level arrangement. Keepin' it Eel is a series of tracks that consists, individually, of juxtaposing samples that work both with and against each other, merging together and forming a cohesive album that is uplifting, funky, and enjoyable enough to bring some rays of summer into the bitter cold of winter.

1. Condorman's Revenge
2. Two Parent Household
3. Roper Golf Pro
4. Too Tuff
5. Seventeen Fireflies
6. Relocation Blues
7. European Vacation
8. The One Revisited
9. The Ring
10. Me and You
11. Find a Quiet Place
12. Oblivious
13. High - Yes
14. Diamond District
15. I Want U With Me