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Nat Baldwin in Review by Jesse Alejandro November 26th, 2008 Delicious



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Nat Baldwin's MVP is a bassist's album. Only two of the album's ten tracks don't open with the sharp, bowed upright bass tones that are the foundation of Baldwin's compositions. It is this bass work that is the genesis of MVP's songs, and many of the album's successes and failures rest upon it.

Baldwin's busy bass style meshes with drummer Will Glass's rhythms like chocolate and chicken; sweet and savory. The grooves that the bass and drums exude are the highlights of the album; whether they're implying uneven time signatures on "The Felled Trees" or simply waltzing, Baldwin's rhythm section clicks smoother than a brand new remote control.

MVP's rhythms in general compel. On the opening track, "Lake Erie," a polyrhythmic pairing of guitar playing duple and bass playing triple give the song a sharp, rhythmic hook that catches you and doesn't let go. "Dome Branches" has multiple time signatures (five for the verse and six for the chorus) paired with the diatonic ascension of horns. When they play straight eighth notes, it invokes the minimalism of Sufjan Stevens and Philip Glass. But Baldwin, to his credit, references such composers sparingly, blending their rhythmic ideas with his own indie rock timbrel and harmonic sensibility.

Much of the album's beauty pours from its instrumentation. Like a lake disturbed by skips of stones, woodwinds ripple softly over "Black Square," making the song as pleasant as a rowboat ride with a pretty girl on a June afternoon. "Masks I Wear" employs its clarinets more like a pump organ in a medieval Catholic church, giving the slow waltz the flavor of a buttery sun god sitting atop a mashed potato firmament. The irresistible beauty of the woodwinds leaves the listener wishing for more--not only on the songs they already grace, but on the rest of MVP as well.

The other instrumental highlight is a simplification. "Only To Find" is a voice/bass duet that utilizes the best elements of Baldwin's playing and singing. The sharpness with which the bass is bowed lends itself to the uneven meter of three, while the timbre of the upright bass gives it instant class. Baldwin's voice makes the most sense in this duet setting, as his warble plays good cop to the stolid bass's bad cop.

The vocal work on MVP is a clear nod to Baldwin's time in the Dirty Projectors and the influence of its lead singer, David Longstreth. The melisma(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melisma), a singing technique by which one sings multiple notes over a single syllable of text, is key to the vocal style Baldwin and Longstreth share. This melisma-heavy style often doesn't work for Baldwin. Paired with the timbre of the upright bass, Baldwin's voice produces the sound of a stutterer singing on a boat in the ocean during a storm. Or like a castrato showing off in a Baroque aria. Unlike Longstreth, Baldwin's voice doesn't have the breath under it to convincingly articulate the falsetto runs that punctuate the end of his melodies. This problem is particularly apparent during MVP's lush rock arrangements, when the rest of the band (especially the drums) overwhelm the vocals, making Baldwin's thin voice sound like a scrap of paper flapping in the wind.

MVP's melodies don't make up for the weak singing. Primarily diatonic and stepwise in nature, MVP lacks hummable tunes, a quality especially necessary amid the album's harmonic minimalism and familiarity. Such harmonic homogeneity only isn't necessarily a bad thing, as proven by Eno and Byrne's "Remain In Light" and Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows." But making it work requires recognizable and well-placed footholds for the listener to traverse the homogeneity without becoming lost, disoriented, and disinterested. The song "One-Two-Three" has several of the elements that make a good song: pretty bass line and timbre, danceable beat, and lovely backing harmonies. But it lacks the melodic linchpin to make it cogent and make listeners want to hear it again and again.

MVP occasionally descends into "noise" (most jarringly on "Look She Said"), the cacophonous blither inescapable in Brooklyn these days. But for as abstract as the album gets during noise sections, MVP repeatedly finds its way back to a familiar, almost folky tonality. Besides the sparse waltzes discussed above, Baldwin manages this feat by inserting major pentatonic blues riffs via electric guitar, a sound bound to inspire nostalgia for the Americana of old. And although Baldwin's chord progressions are often repetitive to the point of minimalism, the changes are classic rock and jazz fodder, ensuring that whatever happens above them, the harmonic base always offers the ear a familiar pillow to rest upon.

Nat Baldwin's MVP is a success. Although the album is in part a pastiche, enough of Baldwin's own ideas pervade (particularly through his bass playing) to create something always unique and sometimes beautiful.


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