New York has been inspiring artists and musicians since the city’s birth – there’s nothing new there. When Irishman David Holmes fell in love with the place, it resulted in 1997’s critically celebrated Let’s Get Killed, one of the best albums of breakbeat electronica to surface during the ’90s. Tony Simon, aka Blockhead, is a home-grown New Yorker, so it’s fitting that his second Ninja Tune outing is a hymn to the city. That he also appears to have matched the quality of Holmes’ masterpiece makes this a special achievement indeed.
Those familiar with Simon’s first album, Music By Cavelight, will know the wonderful threads that Downtown Science’s is built from, and will be excited to know that it’s an even better record. Whilst delivering a large chunk of the classic Ninja Tune sound – chilled-out breakbeats, jazz samples, whimsical interludes and myriad sonic eccentricities – he ups the ante in the construction. Vocal samples are expertly layered together into choral tapestries blending funk, soul and the sound of bygone days into a whole that’s genuinely beautiful.
The album builds up slowly, and from a downbeat note. Opening track Expiration Date almost recalls the minimalist soundscapes of DJ Krush for a while. A vocal sample sets up the melancholy right from the start (“It’s not unusual – probably hundreds of wonderful love affairs go bad in this town every week”) and the pace gradually builds, bringing in the horn stabs and dirty guitar sounds that can be found throughout the album.
If the album as a whole tells a story, then Expiration Date is the end and the rest is told in flashback. Roll Out The Red Carpet kicks off with a date being arranged and glides into an ethereal funk that captures all the mystery of walking across New York on a snowy night. Serenade closes off the first act, a short flight of whimsy flowing from a comic intro into a flirtation between dancing flute and cornet as they glide through a Christmas Manhattan.
So it builds, slowly but surely into one of the best instrumental hip-hop albums of the year. Crashing Down builds everything that preceded it into a frantic extended drum fill just held back by the main beat before dropping into a harmonica coda. Stop Motion Traffic then darkens the tone a little further, with classic analogue synth tones and rock guitar fills fighting it out between cushions of static. The Art of Walking flips the mood completely, with a whimsical blend of soul and gospel samples and clarinet over the funkiest groove on the album.
The palette of sounds seems to expand and evolve throughout the album, rather than just from one tune to the next, and it always seems to fit back into Tony Simon’s New York story. From Quiet Storm’s melancholy bossanova and Mariachi horns to The First Snowfall’s screaming guitars and tabla breakbeats it’s all part of a beautiful brilliant whole.
By the time the spaghetti western whistle introduces Long Walk Home it feels like an incredible night’s journey is coming to an end. Just like David Holmes’ classic, this is an album to stick on your iPod as you walk through Manhattan at night, even if it’s a pretend Manhattan in your home town miles away. Like the best of what used to be called trip-hop, Downtown Science is music to walk to, music that seems to alter your everyday surroundings as you travel through them. When you compare the cost of this priceless album to that of a transatlantic flight to the Big Apple, it becomes the best-value purchase of the year.