On their latest release, NorCal Art Ensemble traffics in minimalist reggae that paints vivid and sparse soundscapes, with the spaces in between the notes as important as the notes themselves.
Consisting of two members, NorCal Art Ensemble is an project unto itself. While the project is home-recorded and produced, members Aaron Lehr and Thomas Molina took pains not to overindulge in the studio and record something the two of them wouldn't be able to pull off live, so they relieved heavily on a loop station and some improvised musical devices/ alterations. Lehr, modified his guitar pick-up and installed some metal on the instrument so he can add percussive elements to his guitar playing duties. Molina uses a double mic-ing technique on his trumpet so he can put effects on one channel and maintain a clean sound on another, stretching the effective range of the instrument.
Leaning hard on looping can be a double edged sword, as is the case on NorCal Art Duo. On one hand, being able add and subtract riffs can make for nuanced and layered music where you can build something up while removing earlier layers and preventing songs from getting crowded by too many parts. But, on the other hand, sometimes songs become beholden to an underpinning riff and can struggle to develop beyond a root chord progression.
NorCal Art Ensemble takes the good with the bad here, building simple and sparse songs that are simultaneously moving and understated. The spaces between the resonant upstrokes create a void that begs to be filled, lending great credence and significance to the horn and vocal lines that pepper the vacuum. The guitar chord progressions that support the songs occasionally can get overly repetitive, but they always serve their purpose, building a landscape for the vocals and horn to exist within.
The songs themselves are pretty straightforward reggae tunes, although the restraint and minimalist that NorCal Art Ensemble demonstrates gives the band a unique sound. The opening track, “No Fussin” sets the tone effectively and informs the listener what kind of album they're in for. The horn riff that leads the song is a classic, jazzy riff that gives the song an effective refrain to orbit around. Later on the album, “Wake Up Slow” provides more constant, driving vocals and meandering trumpet lines evocative of empty, rain-swept streets. “Once Upon A Time” toes beyond the beaten path with a fantasy-folk ballad that channels Celtic sadness.
As a whole NorCal Art Duo is interested foray into experimentally minimalist reggae fare. Restraint rules the day: there's no doubt that these guys could produce a much larger, fuller sound—but then they might just be another reggae band. Instead, but illuminating misty and sparse soundscape, the create a sound that defined by the empty spaces and the delicate ways they chose to populate them.
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