Howe Records (label)
25 September 2020 (released)
21 October 2020
1991's Blue Lines from trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack changed the game upon its release. The dirty/polished breaks and woozy Bristol mood brought a new genre to the fore but it was the infusion of rich soulful singing with this new pastiche that got listeners hooked. On a song like 'Unfinished Sympathy', Shara Nelson's emotionally vulnerable yet simultaneously powerful vocals leave an indelible imprint on the minds of the listeners. This combo really paved the way for the passionate female vocal chorus that has been a constant in rap songs ever since.
The latest album from New-Jersey based electronic artist Robert Cotnoir's Grapefruit Sound Lab builds off of that combo with the amazing vocal talents of singer Amuka, Sarah Naughton, and Gina Volpe. However, on the record Cotnoir swaps out the rain-soaked downtempo of the trip-hop progenitors for a hypnotically energized electronic that is both danceable and introspective at the same time. Grapefruit Sound Lab fuses styles of 90s dance music from both sides of the Atlantic along with the punchy 80s rock from INXS to Prince.
The lead-off track 'A Song About Freedom' takes aim at our tech-centric culture and sarcastically lambasts our most vain attempts at attention through our phone screens. Spoken wordsmith Naughton takes on a sardonic singsong as her remixed, stuttering monolog sends-up selfie sticks and thirst traps. Amuka comes in on the chorus to inject a dose of sanity and perspective. Her second verse slays the Instagram/Onlyfans economy and the vapid world it promotes. Cotnoir accents the statement with bouncy rubber ball synth bass and classic 80s drum machine sounds.
Breezy synths play minor chords and shimmering guitars echo into the night on 'To Make You Mine' with Cotnoir taking on lead vocals. Featured track 'Don't Fall For It' has three entries on the album with two remixes showing up at the end of the record. Amuka staunchly holds her ground refusing to play the fool any longer. Her 90s dance song rap break game is strong. Her refrain of “I'm a little bit older now/A little bit bolder now/A little bit leaner/Little bit meaner/Little bit wiser now!” borrows the cadence of The Isley Brothers 'Shout!' to make for a powerful hook. A great power anthem in the tradition of all those great early 90s dance tracks.
The album has many layers. From here they delve deeper, using the format as a vessel for some serious creative expression beyond the “hit” quality sought after by mainstream EDM. 'Ave Maria' breaks up the pace of the album with a hypnotic cathedral chant think-piece that evolves into a worldly trip-hop mantra. Veins of Nine Inch Nails influence come in various places with 'Shine' recalling the tail end of the 80s beats of Pretty Hate Machine and 'Love Cards' grooving on a beat that is unmistakably reminiscent of The Downward Spiral's 'Closer'. The latter features Amuka once again owning the vibe, taking the NIN feel and making it her own. It brings to mind when Reznor went on the road with backup vocalists Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson in 2013.
Sarah Naughton's ironic delivery is put to use again with great effect on the main album's closer 'Dum Dum Gun'. Completely shedding the electronic veneer, this track targeting gun nuts and the cowardly politicians that harbour them takes on a Victorian tone with a string quartet and militaristic civil war snare drum. Her elocution is flawless while her acerbic attack strikes like a viper.
Grapefruit Sound Lab's Eight Days Across America comes from a great love of late 80s/early 90s dance music but doesn't dwell there for the whole record. It is by no means just a nostalgia record. Cotnoir is repurposing the sounds for 2020, finding parallels in the greedy decadent culture left by eight years of Reagan. Guest vocalists Amuka and Sarah Naughton breathe a lot of life and attitude into each song, bringing deep soul to the mechanical base of electronic music.