2tall: The Softer Diagram

Anyone expecting 2tall's latest collection The Softer Diagram to be variations on an instrumental hip-hop theme won't be entirely off-base but may be surprised to discover how much farther afield the material travels. On his second solo outing (two years in the making and the follow-up to 2005's Shifting Tides), London-based rhythmatist Jim Coles works up a dozen salvos from samplers, turntables, and synths for LA-based Content, headed up by his one-time Needlework compadre Dday One. The album title comes from Coles' desire to fuse the simplicity of beats (“softness”) with geometrically intricate arrangements (“diagram”), and on that count The Softer Diagram succeeds.

Though the twelve head-nodding cuts are typically short (only two exceed four minutes), he packs ample detail into each one without losing an overall sense of cohesion. There are restrained moments, such as the opening “A Word,” where a bright synthesizer melody floats into view, clearing the way for a lurching clip-hop groove and a vocalist's dreamy musings about peace, and harder-edged tracks like the clubby percussive banger “Ritual” and tribal electro-funkateer “Grazing On Empty.” On the vocal front, a reggae bass line powers the slippery charge of “Trains” as E. Saint waxes philosophical and nostalgic about the transit system and its riders, while Kashmere fires wild rhymes over a bleepy synth motif and turntable flourishes during the electro dub-hop of “The Most High.” Rhodes touches give the laid-back soul-funk of “Distant Shadows” a jazzy feel before, for whatever reason, the American Idol judge gets name-checked by the jazzy head-nodder “For Simon Cowell.” Some of the album's best material arrives late, specifically “Harbour Lights,” a bright, synth-heavy cut powered by classic head-nodding beats, and “Garden Child,” a bucolic bit of entrancement that combines pastoral flute and outdoor sounds (bird chirps, etc.) with crisp beat flow.

2tall's album (closer to a mini-album at thirty-six minutes) stumbles but once: though Dday One nicely toughens up the beat attack and adds trippy sweetening (e.g., bells) in his “Garden Child” remix, the song is sequenced so close in proximity to the original it feels repetitive. Coles would've been better to have placed his version third or fourth to give the two more elbow room.

August 2008