Los Angeles is a big city. That’s an understatement, of course, but it’s an understatement worth repeating: Los Angeles is a big, big city.
It’s simple to forget (or never acknowledge) how big it is if you’ve never lived or spent significant time there. There are more people in the L.A. metropolitan area than there are in most U.S. states. And yet, to many of the residents in those states, L.A. is not L.A. at all — it’s Hollywood. It’s a city-industry-movement that’s so proud of its identity that there’s a sign with 50-foot letters on the side of the mountain reminding you where you are. It’s a place that tells you it’s better to be entertained than to think, better to look good than feel good, better to be popular than to be liked. It’s an image factory where people go to lose their middle-class pasts and chase their high society dreams.
In that respect, Hollywood serves its purpose. Perhaps not always well, but well enough to keep E!’s True Hollywood Story on the air an to keep the popular kids and drama club nerds from all over the world flocking there. For all the rest, both the locals and the people who move there for the promise of creative freedom as opposed to the enticement of fame and fortune, there’s much more to Los Angeles than just Hollywood. There’s sunshine, cultural diversity, smog, racial conflict, wide boulevards, beaches, palm trees and countless unique neighborhoods. There’s also miles and miles of freeways connecting everything.
The people at pioneering Internet radio station Dublab couldn’t have picked a better name for this album. Cities are often defined as much by how you navigate through them as by who lives in them, and without the freeways, Los Angeles would be a mess of mini-kingdoms that never bled into one another.
As it is, Freeways brings everyone together. The L.A.-based artists that are highlighted on this first joint compilation released by Dublab and Emperor Norton Records attest to the diversity that makes up L.A.’s underground electronic and hip-hop communities. What it ends up doing in the process is revealing that “community” isn’t just an arbitrary label. The general cadence for the compilation is eerily unified: a melancholy and somewhat organic vibe dominates throughout, with only temporary forays into sunny territory.
It’s a bit unnerving, actually. You’d expect that in a place where clouds are a rarity and rainy days even rarer, the music being made, underground or not, would be a little more upbeat. But Freeways is a work of bedroom producers, and sunshine doesn’t matter when the blinds are shut.
There are exceptions. Opening track “The Sky Below”, by South American transplants Languina & Fer Chloca, merges acoustic guitar strumming with a progression of bleeps and buzzes that sound like crickets and birds on a warm evening — and all the evenings are warm in L.A. John Tejada’s “I’ll See You in a Place with Lights” has a smooth backbeat and meandering basslines that are the perfect accompaniment to cocktails by the pool on a blistering hot day. And album-closer “Nawa” by Adam Randolph clangs like a windchime in an ocean breeze.
Elsewhere, the soundscapes are much less buoyant. Mia Doi Todd, a spectacular vocalist who has sung with Folk Implosion and many others, offers a reworking called “Digital, Version 2.1” in which her guttural yet fragile vocals are underscored by a muted beat box rhythm. The lyrics go on too long and are somewhat heavy-handed, but what she lacks in lyrical prowess she more than makes up in vocal restraint.
Damon Aaron is equally restrained in the soulful, tortured “Don’t Get up Again”. Yesterday’s New Quintet gives it a less restrained go on the retro-jazzy “Soul Searchin'”, a moody layering of classic jazz organ and drum samples. Mannequin Lung goes the opposite direction by adding synthetic bounce to the beat and a grisly loop that’s more seedy than soft on “Is It Live?”
Yet, like many of the tracks on Freeways, “Is It Live?” ends up seeming only half-finished. The beats, melodies and overtures are all in the right places, but they’re often not in the right balance, leaving half an album that simply seems like filler. Relaxing ambient filler, but filler nonetheless.
Freeways stops short of being a revelation from the L.A. underground, but it does manage to be completely unexpected. The juxtaposition of unjustified exuberance and unbridled anger that has defined L.A. music over the past several decades is nowhere to be found on this compilation, so if the measure of an underground movement’s health is how much it differs from the mainstream, then L.A.’s underground electronic and hip-hop movements are flourishing.