Astronautalis is often referred to as a rapper, but the description is a little misleading. The first two tracks on his second album, The Might Ocean & Nine Dark Theaters, don't help clarify things, either: Though rhyming is involved, the feel is more lo-fi alternative rock than Tupac. With a reedy voice, Astronautalis speak-sings about life changes and attraction... and on the third song, "Seaweed Sheets," he picks up an old-school-sounding beat (among the instruments listed in the liner notes are "P. Diddy drums") and his rap roots become more apparent.
So, let's be clear: this isn't hip-hop rap -- it's more like spoken-word café rap, as performed by a guy who looks more likely to be at a skate park or fraternity hazing than rocking a mic. There's no throwing up of the hands or booty or Courvoisier, but there is plenty of beer and "bitten-lipped smiles." Astronautalis' work is pretty relentlessly stream-of-conscious -- so much so that he lets himself get audibly winded, as if to say, "Yeah guys, it's pretty tiring getting all these thoughts out."
His rapid-fire and low-key delivery can occasionally make it hard to discern what those thoughts are, exactly, but much of it involves dreams and bed sheets and landscapes. In a neat design twist, the CD cover forms a pocket for loose "Polaroids" that illustrate each song, complete with lyrics on the back. That way you can read lyrics such as "We've all woken from the same glorious dream, it's full of hope, it ain't just wrinkled sheets and another empty bed."
There's something aurally distinctive on just about every track of this CD, which was produced by Astronautalis collaborator Radical Face. On "My Dinner with Andy," it's the opening beat, which sounds like it was derived from a step show, combined with lazy acoustic guitar. On "Seaweed Sheets," it's the way the repeated chorus starts threading in and out different lead vocals toward the end of the song. It has elements of everything from old spirituals to electronica. It is haunting, interesting and decidedly not danceable.
I had decided that "Skeleton" was one of my favorites on this album before realizing that its full title is "Skeleton (Everybody's Favorite)." I guess there's something to be said for the wisdom of crowds, because the track is indisputably tight, ominous and effective. While there's nothing wrong with blending genres, "Skeleton" is the track that tries the least hard and accomplishes the most.
Overall, The Might Ocean & Nine Dark Theaters may be too opaque and self-conscious for many listeners to really embrace and connect with. But its innovation and lack of shyness about blending genres should be an example to the hip-hop world, which seems to be flooded with stale conventions at this point.
"I am trying to be the Van Morrison of this rap shit," Astronautalis says on his MySpace page. Hmm... would he settle for Bill Callahan from Smog?