Subtle: Unlikely Rock Shock

By: Dennis Cook

Oakland's Subtle is sonic and ontological filo dough, crisp and tender layers filled with a cacophony of voices – present and historical – and a quicksilver musical paste. Primal as a rock 'n' log cave jam and so forward arching that their music at times seems vaguely speculative, Subtle contains multitudes. Birthed from the off-the-beaten path experimental and hip-hop communities that thrive in the Bay Area, Subtle is a club banger with a PhD, Noam Chomsky shaking his pasty ass to a D.C. go-go throwdown, pulses rising in time to the polemics. Such are their depths that there's virtually no end to the interconnections and, well, subtle sympathetic vibrations in every aspect of their work. More bluntly, as Prince (an obvious Subtle ancestor) once put it, "Got a big ol' muffin / Got a lotta butter to go."

"Our plan the whole time was to have the music this band makes model this central fictional character's lifestyle where he's forced to make pop songs for these horrible, vain, empty gods that are omniscient and all-powerful. He has to come with the straight dope AND guard everything. Everything has to feel dumbed down but be twice as loaded," says lyricist-vocalist-general mensch Adam "Doseone" Drucker. "That's why everything is direct quotes from the book [an elaborate, exhaustive book/almanac akin to an epic poem spliced with a demented genius' journals underpins Subtle's trio of full-length albums], rhyming abstractions of actual truths. What I love is how it's almost impossible to untangle yourself from the snarl of shit being thrown out there."

The Subtle 6 - Drucker, Jeffrey "Jel" Logan (sampling, drum machine), Jordan Dalrymple (drums, guitar, synths, vocals), Dax Pierson (vocals, keys, harmonica), Marty Dowers (woodwinds, synths) and Alexander Kort (electric cello) – produce a truly unique set of sounds that resonates on cerebral and emotional levels, a tuning fork for the soul and mind. Dauntingly adventurous but rarely elusive, they are intense, modern and ruthlessly smart but there's always bone and blood to their creations, an intrinsic humanity that's humanizing. Their grappling with the modern condition lends fresh moves and muscle to our own struggles, and if they can make you dance on the road to Armageddon then all the better.

Doseone from
"We're doing this shit with $37 and some house paint and making it pop," chuckles Drucker before Dalrymple adds, "Adam and I have discussed how our dream band – though not really musically – is Steely Dan, where you infiltrate the pop world with these things you're not supposed to say in a pop song – cryptic, poetic comments on society that you're tapping your foot to and then suddenly stop as you realize what's being said. Steely Dan had their horribly cheesy moments musically but as far as concept, melody and production values, we're all big fans."

Subtle's third long player, ExitingARM (arriving May 20 on Lex Records) is their attempt to "pop it the fuck up," as they imagine what a band would do if they really sold out. It's a pathway one can never envision them taking but the allure of fame and the many comforts that come with it is a nifty daydream/nightmare trigger, especially for an outsider ensemble that's been humping it since 2001, facing "VH1: Behind The Music type shit," as Drucker puts it, including the theft of most of their gear and raw recordings in 2005 and a devastating tour van accident that left Dax Pierson mostly paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

"When we came off this TV On The Radio tour we did we laid the groundwork for these new recordings by focusing on the drums. Everyone was playing percussion and Jeff was sampling people to make skeletal rhythms. From that we formed loops and interesting parts and found key little basslines that kicked us off," says Dalrymple. "We were trying to get this really distilled, opaque, concentrated, melodic, pop, rhythm-based sound that would encapsulate these songs in a pop art kind of way. What Warhol did with visual art, we wanted to do to music. We took lyrical chunks of previous records, sort of cannibalizing everything, to make these songs out of different concepts that have floated through this band."

The result is the first Subtle album you can crank in your ride, the additional bounce to the ounce and pared down structures making more digestible morsels than in the past, but still asking prickly questions like "Would you skin your skull to draw its strength?" There's a whiff of Autechre, Can, Tricky, Serge Gainsbourg, Babatunde Olatunji, Squarepusher, Bjork, Freestyle Fellowship, Miles Davis and considerably more but without feeling overly eclectic. They are such focused, talented players that each whirr and bang seems carefully chosen, perhaps even vehemently argued over behind closed doors. There are happy accidents but no mistakes in Subtle.

"Adam and I produce most of the music, and I tend to want things to be a bit more glossy and he tends to bring things down a little more so it's dirty or broken. Adam can see the overall concept, how the lyric will fit and the overall mood. I bring in melody and sonic texture but he sees it as a whole. This band takes a lot of compromise but ultimately it all goes into the soup," says Dalrymple.

That they're able to translate these hyper-kinetic, jam originated constructions into the live setting is surprising enough but Subtle is an indestructibly satisfying concert act that mixes theatrics, tough musicianship, Will Rogers style storytelling and chrome plated spirituality. Dressed entirely in white, fully aware of the varying interpretations of the color in different cultures – death, purity, etc. – they have the air of monks or missionaries (sans any monotheistic implications). Each man finds his own place in the all-white theme, from the Buddhist simplicity of Kort to the hobo Fred Astaire flair of Drucker and Dalrymple to Jel's gateman in Dickie's Heaven choices. Even in unity there is personality and preference, a character that infuses their music, which is delivered with utmost passion and care live, learned backwards from the finished recordings and then transmuted into something that can be shared in real time.

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