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Subtle - For Hero: For Fool

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Artist: Subtle

Album: For Hero: For Fool

Label: Lex

Review date: Nov. 19, 2006

Subtle's Doseone and Jel are involved with the perpetually out-of-place collective Anticon, whose members' interests include hip-hop, dance music, indie-rock and noise. Unsurprisingly, For Hero: For Fool won't make Anticon any less uncategorizable.

Alongside MC/keyboardist Doseone and beatmaker Jel, Subtle also features cellist Alexander Kort, drummer/guitarist Jordan Dalrymple, and multi-instrumentalist Marty Dowers. (Subtle also includes keyboardist Dax Pierson, who hasn't toured with the band since he broke his neck in a tragic van accident.)

The instrumentation of that lineup might be intriguing or cringe-inducing to you depending on your tolerance for superficial genre smash-ups, but Subtle isn't superficial and it isn't a novelty act, either. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but one of Subtle's great strengths is that it's often very difficult to tell what each of them is doing. When I saw Subtle earlier this year, Dowers was sitting down, and it was downright impossible to tell what sounds he was making. It's not much easier to tell what he contributes on For Hero: For Fool, but when I can tell, I'm always surprised at how tasteful it is - his whistle-blowing on the spectacular "The Mercury Craze" is one of my favorite moments on the album.

All of which is to say that this is pretty sophisticated stuff, which is a good thing, because it'd be a shame if Doseone's spectacular mic work were wasted. For Hero: For Fool features his usual mix of bizarre old-school hip-hop pyrotechnics, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony-style speak-singing, and plain old singing. While Doseone is impressive in a lot of contexts, he's especially great on this album, particularly on the aforementioned "The Mercury Craze" - his stuttering, inscrutable rhymes at the beginning of that track are some of the best work he's ever done.

A lot of the production on projects with which Doseone has been associated could be described as "dreamlike" - Odd Nosdam's work with Clouddead certainly fits the bill, and while Jel's production with Themselves features snappier beats, his frequent forays into noise often give Themselves' music an incidental, half-there quality. This is appropriate, since Doseone's lyrics seem to follow a sort of dream-logic - brief flashes of insight followed by streams of non-sequiturs that obfuscate so much that you struggle to remember what the insights were or why they meant anything to you in the first place. One of Doseone's great strengths is that, through his inimitable delivery, his attention to syllable placement and phonetics, and the sheer complexity of his rhymes, he thoroughly convinces the listener that there's something going on in there. So Doseone's lyrics are an elaborate mystery that the listener will return to again and again, just like a dream you can't quite remember but you're sure is important.

Anyway, Subtle may, in a way, be the most dream-like of all of Doseone's projects, simply because of the instrumental resources the band has available. Clearly, Subtle doesn't create the sort of narcoleptic haze that Nosdam makes for Clouddead - rather, Subtle's dreamlike qualities are more structural. Consider, for example, the nine-minute, two-track suite "Middleclass Stomp"/"Middleclass Kill." It starts as an off-kilter, guitar-heavy indie rock song that Doseone negotiates by alternating between cartoonishly extroverted rapping and more straightforward singing. Then the drums drop out and there's a bridge that features swirling, repeating cello and flute figures. After the indie-rock guitars return for a while, "Middleclass Kill" abruptly begins with ominous whispering, along with a propulsive beat that's played first by live drums, then by a drum machine. Next is a passage that sounds almost industrial.

If all this sounds like a celebration of proggy weirdness for its own sake, it really isn't intended to be. My point here is that Subtle are extraordinarily good at this sort of proggy weirdness, and they're especially good at avoiding the trap of playing watered-down versions of lots of styles. They employ all this weirdness not (or, at least, not only) to impress the listener, but to create a huge canvas for Doseone to run wild on. Even more than their last record, the fine A New White, For Hero: For Fool is a wonderfully sprawling mess.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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