If you’ve been at all conscious for the past five years, you’ve no doubt heard the magic of the Neptunes. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, childhood friends from Virginia Beach, formed an R&B group of the same name in high school, though that’s not how you’d know them today. It only takes four songs to prove the worth of the Neptunes’ writing and production résumé: “I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Rock Your Body,” “Milkshake” and “Hollaback Girl.” There has simply been no way to escape any of the above listed tracks over the last few years, not that anyone has really wanted to thanks to their immediate ear catching appeal, and if you’re wondering who these songs belong to, well, that shit is bananas. But, Williams, Hugo, and another friend, Shay, have another side to them, one that only tangentially touches the realm of zeitgeist grabbing hits for Britney, Justin, Kelis and Gwen. Going by the name N.E.R.D. (standing for “No one Ever Really Dies”), this trio have released their third full-length album of genre shattering tunes, Seeing Sounds.
The intro of the album, a Danny Elfman / ’50s instructional film inspired narrative, gives us the album’s title, a reference to the feeling of synesthesia, a confusion of the senses. We are then thrust headlong into the meat of the album, beginning with the funk based “Time for Some Action” whose bass line is pure David Holmes and vocal delivery is reminiscent of sometime client Jay-Z. Pelle Almqvist of the Hives makes a guest appearance, though it’s not nearly as attention grabbing as the song’s hypnotic construction. “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom)” is the lead single from the album, one I managed to catch N.E.R.D. performing on David Letterman. What strikes me about this track is its incredible similarity to the music of 2 Live Crew, specifically the parenthetical shout. Maybe there was something in the air as they recorded the track in Miami.
The real standouts on the record are the tracks that seem like hybrids of music that don’t often get combined. For instance, if I were to describe the Knack overdubbed with Prince’s soulful vibes and maniacal screeches, you might think me mad, but that’s exactly what “Windows” is, and it works (I suppose unlike Bill Gates’ product of the same name). Fuzzed out Zeppelin guitars clash with hip-hop beats to perfection on the clever “Anti-Matter.” “Happy” is what I’d imagine would be the result of a Tracy Jordan pastiche of a Synchronicity
era Police track, while “Kill Joy” combines the Sugar Hill Gang with the gripping spy games of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” “You Know What” inserts both romantic and Teddy Riley (Williams’ former mentor) inspired sexual overtones to a roller-skating disco cut.
But the really genius tracks on Seeing Sounds are “Sooner or Later” and “Love Bomb.” Starting out like an infectious Outkast funk soul jam, the choruses of “Sooner or Later” bring the song to incredibly dizzying heights. Harmonized vocals can remind one of tracks like the Pharcyde’s “Runnin'” while the frenzied guitar solo is Prince-tastic. “Love Bomb,” a protest song of sorts, is just as soul inspired, and with driving choruses that are nearly the equal of the formerly mentioned stunner.
There is a massive gorilla on the cover of the new album. I can’t help but think of it as symbolic. Though menacing in the act of baring its teeth, the members of N.E.R.D. stand resolute, backs to the camera, simply in awe of the beast. Maybe it’s because it is housed in some kind of magic barrier, denoted by the gray markings on the ground, but I think it would be for one of two other reasons. For one, the gorilla could represent the record industry, their power and their usual resistance to anything groundbreaking (just ask Wilco or Brian Wilson). N.E.R.D., of course, don’t back down, standing defiant in the face of corporate pressure, doing their own thing. Or, the gorilla could be a more direct allusion to Damon Albarn’s animated band, Gorillaz. Whereas the Neptunes went from dance oriented hit production to alternative rock, Damon Albarn took the opposite path, going from the Britpop of Blur to the dance singles of “Clint Eastwood” and “Dare.” Maybe the cover depicts the virtual crossroads where these two elements meet. Either way, the collective vision of N.E.R.D. shouldn’t be monkeyed with.
Outkast- Speakerboxx / The Love Below
The Pharcyde- Labcabincalifornia
Gnarls Barkley- St. Elsewhere