Photographer: Kirk Webber.
Musicologists (and folks eager to sound like them) have long contended that hip-hop and its offshoots are simply the latest links in the chain that extends from traditional blues and R&B, as well as the African-American oral tradition, but more casual listeners often shrug off such notions, insisting hip-hop is just some sort of urban noise that sprang out of nowhere. The first full-length album from Son Little (the stage name of songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Livingston) could be seen as an essay in 12 songs about how the trajectories of blues, soul, and hip-hop cross paths and reveal a common source and mindset, though at no time does Little's music suggest this was ever his guiding principle while making this music. Vintage blues and R&B are at the heart of Son Little's sounds, but on most tracks you have to listen for a minute or two before you can figure out just what bit has been scavenged from where, and while electronic beats and digital manipulation of sounds are clearly a big part of how these tracks were created, this is music that was informed by hip-hop without actually being hip-hop (the songs may have been constructed using bits and pieces of common blues figures, but if there's any sampling on this album, it's subtle enough to never call attention to itself). What Son Little ultimately delivers on this album is something fascinating and unexpected; from the sparse and ominous opener "I'm Gone" (primarily built around the ghostly refrain "You get what you get, and don't expect a thing") and the doomstruck 12-bar creep of "Loser Blues" to the fuzzy stomp-down groove and random noise bursts of the sexy and obsessive "Toes" and the ghostly sweet soul of "Lay Down," this music brings together past and present, each on its own terms, but adds an ineffable sense of mystery that's clearly Little's personal vision. The deep, narcotic texture of this music recalls nothing as much as the beer-addled visions of Basehead's lost masterpiece Play with Toys, but with the obsession with getting buzzed replaced by love, sex, and Little's place in an often unforgiving world. Sometimes troubling, frequently joyous, and always articulate and thoroughly individual, Son Little's cross-genre shape-shifting reveals more compelling nuances with each listen, and this is one of the most interesting and rewarding debuts of 2015. ~ Mark Deming