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Artist: Darkside

Album: Darkside

Label: Clown and Sunset

Review date: Mar. 28, 2012

Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside project almost sounds like Matthew Dear proper — not necessarily a compliment in my household, where there is some lingering resentment about the attention the Internet pays to a musician whose appeal mostly escapes us. The generally less objectionable Jaar is evidently newsworthy in a similar way, although he has the disadvantage of seeming capable of whatever he sets his mind to, as if on the cusp of outgrowing whatever genre we’ve been foolish enough to put him in. The ability to move between worlds is not always venerated in dance music, to which Jaar and Dear nominally belong. Like James Blake, they’re conversations unto themselves, getting by on a combination of support from indie and dance audiences but too easily appreciated to be truly underground.

That in-between-ness is part of the problem when it comes to ascertaining the real value of the work. There’s much to like about Nicolas Jaar, but perhaps a dearth of truly lovable qualities, the kind of thing that inspires devotion. Everything about the young producer is high minded, and executed with admirable care, precision and taste. But his full-length debut, Space Is Only Noise, isn’t the sort of album you ache to return to, as much as it keeps you in thrall while it’s on.

The Darkside moniker — Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington — hits somewhat harder, although it’s not like you’d be missing out on a crucial part of the dance-music conversation by passing on it. Its enjoyability is due in part to its brevity: an EP containing three untitled tracks doesn’t give you much time or room to ponder its effect, and it also keeps Jaar completely on task, minding every second. But the main draw here is, again, Jaar’s impeccable taste for combining electronic and organic sounds in chugging, sleek arrangements.

This current of dark funk with songwritery flourishes is what connects Jaar’s EP to Matthew Dear. Space Is Only Noise has a toned-down swagger that didn’t put it too far from Asa Breed anyway, but here Jaar’s singing voice has more of the forced funkiness that bogs the Ghostly man down. Of course, Jaar’s aims are more restrained, and so his lyrics and singing of them have less opportunity to flounder, focusing instead on the textural quality of the language and its place in the arrangement.

Until those vocals come in, “A1” could be 1980s horror-movie cruising music: a muted guitar riff sliding over foreshadowed gore, lurking with teen/serial-killer randiness. As the song progresses, it opens up almost too exquisitely, like a wine that’s out of your price range, but the transformation from period piece to legit electronic music and back again is beautifully entropic and effervescent. “A2” also foregrounds a squirrely guitar riff over waves of rhythm, and this time Jaar’s singing is more extensive, less enigmatic and more of a distraction from the monikular darkside so well conjured on the first track. Jaar’s working with crazy fidelity, like a Chuck Close photo that shows celebrities’ pores except with guitar strings and perfect bass sine waves. There’s a momentum inherent to the productions that, as the EP goes on, isn’t aided much by the curlicues of Jaar’s voice, although they’d certainly be dull without them. It’s tempting to hear this as a move in the direction of pop, but these three tracks are too fractured to justify the claim, and certainly come off less as songs per se than “Space Is Only Noise,” from the LP. Darkside is polished, impressive, and despite the name, still very much connected to the biographical Jaar we already know — but it’s not quite good enough to get those who like but don’t love him off the fence.

By Brandon Bussolini

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