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Automato - Automato

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Artist: Automato

Album: Automato

Label: Coup de Grâce

Review date: Apr. 14, 2004

Hip hop albums that end on four-minute jam sessions are few and far between, but even rarer are hip hop albums that pull it off without straining something. I believe, actually, that Automato are the sole members of this category. For this accomplishment, they win my profound respect, and a board game version of Dusted Magazine. What they don’t win is a glowing review. Despite their courage for bending genres to the breaking point, this self-titled debut of live hip hop could use a little more reigning in and little less rocking out.

More often than not, hip hop can be defined by a tonal minimalism, a need to bang that loop until that loop can’t bang no mo’. Automato – with their five-piece band, Beastie Boy-cadenced emcee, and interest in sonic sojourns – end up sounding more like Sugarhill-era hip hop (when the music was still live) than anything on the radio for the last 20 years. DFA producers James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy add their talented touch to this peculiar debut, giving it a crisp and layered sound that is foreign to a genre in love with bowel-moving bass. But this shift away from the minimal, bass-heavy arena results in an album that never quite sounds like hip hop, despite Jesse Levine’s more-than-competent flow and narrative abilities on the mic. It is less his fault than the fact that his backing rhythms are too complicated, the sonic palettes too versatile, the hooks too dynamic. Automato are doing something, but it makes you sway rather than snap your neck. But regardless of where their grooves hit you, or the semantics of genre, what they’re doing isn’t half bad.

Jesse Levine has flow (for a white boy), a healthy dose of abstraction, and a refreshing avoidance of almost every hip hop cliché. Some of his hooks can get cheesy (“All I ever wanted was truth / peace / harmony / and anti-gravitational boots”), but this Manhattan resident has more to say about growing up near the Hudson than how tough he is. His band – made up of Ben Fries, Alex Frankel, Nick Millhiser, Andrew Raposo and Morgan Wiley – forge infectious, occasionally saccharine tunes, taking their cues from dance punk synths, R&B bass funk, and DJ/sampler sound stabs. It’s an eclectic mix, but it’s mixed well, and there is a lot of energy careening out of the sonic blends. “The Single” and “Gold of Desert Kings” are the most successful of the mash-ups, managing to balance the hip hop bounce and background developments to a mutually agreeable end. “Walk into the light” and “Cool Boots” are probably the worst of the batch, playing with too many sounds and never resolving those impulses. This is especially unfortunate with “Cool Boots,” since the schizophrenia hijacks an otherwise kick-ass opening.

But the highlight of Automato’s album is the song “The Let Go,” a surprisingly uptempo narrative about Jesse Levine losing his mother to cancer as a teenager. With lines like “The last letter from my mother was expressing her love / said that she’d always be present / except that she wasn’t exactly present in the present / it was more like her presence / deep inside my chest and in facial expressions,” and a beautiful piano solo closer, it showcases Levine at his finest and shows what Automato can achieve when focused.

Automato’s self-titled debut is fun and somewhat strange, but a little too clean-shaven to be satisfying. They borrow from so many genres, but lose integral aspects of those sounds along the way. They use hip hop without the grit, rock without the emotive depths, electronica without the fascinating intricacies. Like a composite image created out of the world’s most beautiful models, the end result looks plastic. What Automato need is not perfection but something asymmetrical, something to reign in their encyclopedic influences and give their sound the identity achieved on “The Let Go.” Rather than a grocery list of inspirations, they need a weight which they can throw.

By Owen Strock

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