Nicolas Jaar’s 2011 album Space Is Only Noise was a minimal, playfully highbrow work of art with a capital A. Jaar, Brown University graduate and son of renowned artist Alfredo Jaar, is perhaps best known for his solo work, but his collaborations have always been top notch. From songs with kids of celebrities, like Sasha Spielberg and Scout LaRue Willis, to tracks with fellow Brown students, like saxophonist Will Epstein, Jaar has been able to complement his insularity with his more outgoing side.
Chalk Darkside, who now follow up their 2011 self-titled EP with a proper full length, Psychic, under Jaar’s collaborations with fellow Brown students, this time with guitarist Dave Harrington. Psychic and Darkside’s music overall (which this year included a full album remix of Daft Punk’s instant classic Random Access Memories) is certainly less serious than Jaar’s solo work, as it takes influences not from ambient music but from ’70s prog rock, disco, and anything equally cheesy. And like the best Quentin Tarantino films, Jaar and Harrington have figured out how to turn the lowbrow into something both highbrow and extremely enjoyable.
To start, Psychic sports one of the strongest starts to an album in recent memory: the over 11-minute epic Golden Arrow, which starts out sparse and laden with dark pianos and violins and ends with Jaar’s clubbier side. Except for what would normally be synth work is replaced by Harrington’s slinky guitar work that’s like a downer-induced, slow-motion version of that of Nile Rodgers on Random Access Memories. And when Jaar’s falsetto comes in, you’re floored. Sure, the beat drops multiple times during this track, but its best moment is when you hear Jaar’s amorphous voice hovering over Harrington’s sneaky guitars. And indeed, one of the best aspects of Psychic overall is Jaar’s vocal diversity. On Paper Trails, behind some Eric Clapton-esque classic-rock inspired guitar work from Harrington, Jaar uses the weird, whispery baritone he perfected on Space Is Only Noise to ask creepy questions like, “Where are you when I need you?” and “Where did you go?” In essence, Paper Trails mixes the themes of a country song (or a The National song) with something that sounds like Nick Cave doing electronica.
But Psychic is certainly more than the two songs Jaar revealed before its release. Even the transition from the panning Sitra to the pounding drums of Heart is immaculate and worthwhile and commands your attention just as much as the captivating Golden Arrow and Paper Trails. Heart, oddly, becomes what sounds like a Spoon song, as it features sharp, staccato guitars. But that’s only for a short while, as two minutes in, Heart’s synthesizer flourishes transport it into an entirely different dimension, ultimately arriving at something altogether beatless. But how it builds back up into a slow, but driving classic rock-inspired jam, with Harrington’s guitars leading the way, is most impressive. Indeed, on Psychic, Jaar and Harrington show that they’re masters of composition, songwriting, and most importantly, control.
Jaar and Harrington’s penchant for control manifests itself more greatly on the second half of Psychic, as many of the songs in the second half show how noise can become dance at a creator’s whims. The layered percussion of The Only Shrine I’ve Seen slowly morphs into a more straightforward dance track, as snares, bells, and the likes ultimately give way to a pounding bass. Here, Jaar’s voice resembles that of Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon; the combination of Harrington’s disco guitars and Jaar’s dance beat and falsetto makes one wish Vernon was featured on more electronic tracks (or at least was a featured guest on Random Access Memories).
And it’s this that’s the major takeaway from Darkside and Psychic: combining the music of the rock kids and the music of the dance kids doesn’t have to sound like LCD Soundsystem. It can sound like a mish mosh of the obscure record collection of a New Yorker-reading, Ivy League graduate, and one who knows how to have fun just as well as he knows philosophical theory.