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May 26, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Album Review: Atmosphere – When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

The Minnesotan hip hop duo of Slug and Ant know that sleep is the cousin of death.

In the last year alone they’ve released four EPs (one each season), a Christmas-gift downloadable LP from rhymesayers.com, and this; their sixth ‘official’ studio album.

The related self-promotional effort included two music videos, nine ‘webisodes’ answering questions from their ‘internet dork’ fans, and promotional copies of the new album sent to reviewers complete with gold painted lemons that went moldy.

Every Atmosphere album since 2001’s Lucy Ford has expanded the sound launched with 97’s underground classic Overcast! This constant evolution is part of what makes Atmosphere one of the most enduring and successful independent hip hop acts around. Ant’s innovative lo-fiproduction now incorporates elements of blues, soul, jazz, electro, and whatever else blends well. And Slug’s sincere, self-analytical lyrics continue to give a (seemingly) comprehensive view of the artist as a person.

Although When Life Gives You Lemons is supposedly Slug’s most conceptual record, the evocative tales of substance abuse, relationships and self-loathing feel as hard-lived as ever. The fifteen songs, divided into three equal parts (Us, You, and Me), cover a wide range of perspectives, and are matched with equally diverse production. Whether personifying a ubiquitous substance in ‘The Skinny’ or narrating a young girl’s escape in the back seat of her Dad’s car on ‘In her Music Box’, the lyrics paint a compelling picture and flow with directness and clarity. Slug’s delivery combines with the music on songs like the soulful key-backed ‘Yesterday’ to creep up and hit the heart in unexpected ways.

If this is your first experience with Atmosphere, Lemons is as good a place to start as any. Slug is understandably happier nowadays, and Ant’s production reflects this. But while the intense anger of earlier records like God Loves Ugly may have dissipated, the subject matter hasn’t lightened. Songs like the almost ballad, live-guitar backed ‘Guarantees’ portray a working class man trapped in the stagnant American Dream. The music may be easier to digest for some, but it’s not all sunshine yet.

Ant’s beats still contain that old boom bap shrapnel, but with more live instrumentation, and greater integration of the band that makes Atmosphere’s shows so outstanding. ‘Puppets’ starts off like a soul clap lullaby for a coke abusing could-have-been, before the drums and bass kick it up a notch two thirds through, backed by Channy Casselle’s fine vocals. The credits reveal touches of talent from others; Mankwe Ndosi adds dimension to every track she graces, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe is the icy wind howling at the foreboding synth-enclosed ‘Your Glass House’, and Tom Waits’ low-key beatboxing backs the diner-frequenting vagrant in ‘The Waitress’.

Slug’s tuneless singalong on some tracks can grate, and some of the more poppy hooks irk me, but mostly they fit well. The subversive party-vibed ‘You’ is Atmosphere at their most catchy (and irritating), but has enough lyrical substance to make up for it. It’s good to see they’re not diluting the essence in the process of making more accessible music.

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  1. Flora says:

    Thank you.

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