By: Trevor Pour
Expectations can be dangerous. Mike Ladd's Nostalgialator was released in Germany (on the !K7 label) in 2004, but finally made its way to the States with a 2008 release on Definitive Jux. Before my first listen, I heard Nostalgialator described as a fusion of styles somewhere between Aesop Rock and Pink Floyd. As a near obsessive fan of both those artists, I couldn't wait to dig in. But to my surprise and disappointment, Nostalgialator fell on its face, hard. Of the 11-track, 38 minute album, I consider only three tracks worthy of another listen. The rest sounded at best like amateur progressive electronic hip-hop.
Mike Ladd has been producing numerous albums since the late '90s and has a history of focusing his caustic lyrics on hot-button issues, so I wanted to find the allure that many see in Ladd. I made multiple attempts to get into this album, only to become more frustrated at the lack of quality on the majority of the disc. The three superior tracks begin with "Black Orientalist," a hard, fast, club song with rapid lyrics and a catchy hook. While thin on profundity, "Orientalist" is heavy on intensity. Next comes "How Electricity Really Works," a lengthy spoken-word piece with a pleasant, calming backbeat. The tone of the imaginative lyrics matches up well with the timing and character of the music, creating an unanticipated but welcome respite. One gets the impression that Ladd is far better suited to this form of expression. Finally, the title track "Nostalgialator" is an ambient instrumental that meanders and explores sound with more of an adventurous spirit than any other selection on the disc.
With the exception of these three tracks, however, Nostalgialator fails to meet expectations. Many of the abrupt tracks trail off before they develop into meaningful or interesting compositions - "Dire Straits Play Nuremburg," "Trouble Shot," and "Learn to Fall" all find themselves victims of this trend. "Off to Mars," another example, never really changes character after its first four beats. Lyrical depth is hit-and-miss with Ladd, too. While "How Electricity…" is both clever and thought provoking, many of his other lyrics come across as transparent and sophomoric attempts at political or social commentary, such as the pseudo-intellectual "Wild Out Day," where Ladd ponders, "Who needs Marx in the land of a thousand Markets?" Other tracks such as "Housewives at Play," a tongue-in-cheek look at rich women driving Volvos and shopping, is simply tiresome.
It's tough to imagine why Nostalgialator was re-released. Much of the album would fit nicely as an eclectic club backing track, but for general listening I just can't wrap my head around this. Others simply do it better. Def Jux is usually a reliable source of quality releases, so this was doubly disappointing. One positive attribute of Nostalgialator may be the disparity of styles from track to track. Ladd easily tackles half a dozen techniques in just over a half-hour of music. For instance, the closing track, "Sail Away Ladies," is a slow bluesy piece, which is fairly good but completely discordant with the rest of the album. And while impressive, I believe there is something to be said for album flow and continuity.
Ladd is clearly talented. He has produced a few tracks on this album that display both his exceptional lyrical and musical abilities. But despite this talent and his well-received history of releases, some moments on this album are just unimaginative, undeveloped and flat. It's better than any Top 40 pop-rap available, but when I have to start comparing something to pop music to embellish an album we're into dangerous territory. I'll eventually dig deeper into Ladd's cache of albums but Nostalgialator isn't convincing evidence that I should try again too soon.
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