by Hobey Echlin
Former college radio geek turned My Bloody Valentine noise band guitarist turned sample-happy, funky breaks beatmaker, Michael Donaldson (aka Q-Burns Abstract Message) brings a deeper sense of musicality to the otherwise beat-numb American electronica scene on his debut full-length, Feng Shui, his follow-up to last year's Oeuvre singles compilation. Like fellow college-rock-stoked beatmakers the Hardkiss Brothers, Donaldson's use of the sampler is as concerned with bridges and choruses as it is with mere BPM counts. The opening "He's a Skull" wouldn't be out of place on William Orbit's excellent "Strange Cargo 2." Between the horn stabs and rumbling bass, "Skull" is as much set for a desert rave as the soundtrack to Get Shorty 2.
While Donaldson shows his proficiency at making tweakier, narrower dance-floor tracks ("Talking Box," "There Must Be Something"), the standout tracks here are the ones that yearn for a life -- and listening -- beyond the dance floor. "Kinda Picky" is a melancholy soul number, nobly avoiding clichés and led by a spare, aching piano part courtesy of Mr. Donaldson himself, under earnest female vocals that don't sound like the typical funk-ay momma, faux-soul crap. Most bizarre is the decidedly precious goth throwback in the Djarum-and-black-eyeliner vibe of "Jennifer," a cover of an obscure track by krautrockers Faust, doubtless a point of reference owed to Donaldson's college radio roots. Voiced by Daniel Agust of Iceland's Gus Gus, the track is all shimmery guitar, breathy vocals and a gentle, sotto voce breakbeat, more like funky Dead Can Dance than raver fare.
Yet, as adept as Donaldson is at balancing musicianship and deejaying sensibilities, his sense of funk at times seems unresolved between the two methods. Clearly inspired by the beat collaging and unlikely sample pairings of early hip hop, Donaldson's results here aren't as convincing or compelling. As such, Feng Shui only fits into the nebulous, non-techno dance music category of "funky breaks" because, well, "beat-happening college rock" doesn't quite sound as good. As the fun but goofy scat singing of the title track explains the album concept: "Everything here must have its place." The question now is, what place will these songs find in the American beatscape?