DVA: Pretty Ugly

Pretty Ugly, the debut album by longtime Rinse FM DJ Scratcha DVA, is anything but ugly; instead it's an album of rich sonic breadth packed with fresh urban dance tunes of instrumental sparkle and vocal soul. His stint as a radio show host has served him well for the project's production as it's allowed him to include many of the singers featured in the show's favourite songs, names such as Natalie Maddix, Muhsinah, A.L. Zaki Ibrahim, Fatima, and Cornelia, all of whom acquit themselves admirably in their chosen roles.

Bleeding, corroded textures lend the opening of “Reach the Sun” a glitchy character that thankfully retreats quickly to be replaced by a more representative bumping house groove and soulful vocal treatment. As an overture, the tune, a heady mix of experimentalism and dance conventions, promises much for an album that largely lives up to that promise on the subsequent eleven tracks. The album's elevated by futuristic hybrids of house, funk, and synthesizer music such as “Polyphonic Dreams,” whose insistent attack is bolstered by a wiry synth arpeggio and blazing stabs. Vague, mutant strains of dubstep and techno help give “Bare Fuzz” its raw, bass-buzzing power—at least before a robotic coda unexpectedly kicks in. Following an intro of vinyl textures and radiant synthesizers, “The Big 5ive” settles into a fiercely stepping broken beat pulse with determination, while “Where I Belong” takes the album out with a classical-styled piece that's both grandiose in presentation yet, oddly, funereal in tone.

On the vocal front, “Madness,” a prototypical head-spinner, pairs a languorously slow melody voiced by Vikter Duplaix against a restless, synth-heavy backdrop that lumbers at a seemingly faster tempo, resulting in one of the album's oddest yet arresting juxtapositions. As captivating is “Eye Know,” where Natalie Maddix coos a soothing lullaby while around her DVA generates a maelstrom of synthetic fire and beats. Another highlight is the clubby floor-filler “33rd Degree,” which finds a melancholy, multi-tracked vocal by Muhsinah riding a thick, blustery wave of galloping beats and synths. Elsewhere, Fatima drapes her soulful voice across “Just Vybe,” while Cornelia's sexy purr helps lift the already ascendant title track into the stratosphere.

Normally an instrumental base allows for a freer vocal performance, but in DVA's case, it's the vocals that bring a structural coherence to inventively off-key tracks that, were they presented as instrumentals only, would feel even more free-flowing and unconventional. Another key part of the album's appeal is the way in which it comfortably moves back and forth between vocal and instrumental tracks, though even when it does so the separation isn't always so great when vocal elements sometimes worm their way into the fabric of the instrumentals.

March 2012