Cullen Miller: Stolen Nature

With such a plenitude of independent music producers currently releasing music, I'm no longer surprised when I receive material from artists whose work I'm unfamiliar with. What is unusual is for said material to be as solidly crafted as Cullen Miller's Stolen Nature. Born in 1986, the San Francisco-based laptop producer fuses dub, ambient, jazz, funk, and electronic music into nine tightly-constructed and cohesive set-pieces on the fifty-two-minute album. Miller's work is enriched by a background that included learning double bass and studying contemporary classical and modern jazz theory under the tutelage of Netherlands-based composer and bassist Chad Langford. Miller often builds his material from a tight, often funk-oriented (programmed) rhythm base and then overlays it with all manner of natural and electronic sounds—piano, flute, bass, field recordings, synthesizers, voice fragments, and so on (a small number of guest musicians contributes strings, horns, and woodwinds to the album). As a result, his music inhabits a middle ground between synthetic and organic sounds, making it a hybrid that resists easy categorization.

“The Magus” provides a sinuous and seductive starting point with an electro-dub pulse getting things moving understatedly. But Miller shows real skill in the way he enriches the groove with tablas, dobro, voice exhalations, and haunting piano melodies, with the track growing more exotic and enticing as a result. The ten-minute “Cactus Maps” hints at a Steve Reich influence in its opening marimba-based patterning but quickly settles into a loose-limbed funk jam, with live-sounding drumming crossing swords with painterly strokes of slide guitar. “Spore” opts for a more restrained approach in its melding of low-level beats and atmospheric sound design. A serpentine horn solo purrs alongside gently sighing synth flourishes, the splash of vibraphone accents, and a soft flute solo, after which the string-laden “Curwen's Saltes” pairs a violin's rustic cry with an insistent funk groove before breakbeats briefly puncture the mood.

From here on in, the material begins to soften in intensity as it heads into its final stage. “Aethyr Or” offers an atmospheric jazz-funk workout with bass clarinet, flute, and trumpet taking solo turns over a tabla-enhanced rhythm base. The most outright dub cut of the bunch, “Devil's Anchor” is ultimately less devilish than transfixing in its weaving of relaxing seaside atmospheres and languorous dub rhythms. Its dreamy vibe carries over into “Milieu” which first aligns soft vocal exhalations with tropical acoustic guitar strums and then sneaks in alto saxophone and piano playing for additional colour. Miller issued three EPs, all on TwoCircles, prior to Stolen Nature, making it his debut full-length and, for a first album, an impressively assured coming-out.

August 2009