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Nick Malkin, "A Typical Night In The Pit"

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cover imageThis latest release from Student of Decay’s eclectic and unpredictable sister label is an unexpectedly melodic and accessible one, though it still fits comfortably within Soda Gong's ethos of exploring the more playful and trend-averse fringes of experimental music.  While this is technically only Malkin's second solo album under his own name, he has been a prolific and ubiquitous figure in the LA scene for quite some time, surfacing in a number of different guises and collaborations.  In fact, I just belatedly discovered that he played on one of my favorite songs from the Not Not Fun milieu (LA Vampires/Maria Minerva's "A Lover & A Friend").  Given that pedigree, it is not surprising that A Typical Night in the Pit has a very "LA" feel to it, but it is an endearingly vaporous and neon-lit one, evoking a kind of dreamlike and hazy strain of jazz.  It maybe errs a bit too much on the side of atmosphere to feel like a truly substantial statement, but Malkin has both style for days and an impressively unerring instinct for manipulating light, space, and texture.  If I saw a film with this as the soundtrack, I would definitely stick around to the end to find out who the hell managed to make smoky, noirish jazz sound so fresh and endearingly skewed.

Soda Gong

Like a lot of obsessive music fans, I went through a fairly deep "classic jazz" phase at one point and a lot of those albums definitely left a significant impression on me.  However, some iconic albums did not resonate with me at all and many of the ones that most underwhelmed me could loosely be described as "cool jazz."  I bring this up because Malkin and his collaborators explore roughly that same stylistic territory with A Typical Night in the Pit, but manage to do it in a way that highlights all of the best qualities (slow, sultry grooves and languorous, soulful soloing) while avoiding all of the worst ones (soporific pacing, indulgent solos in boring scales, general blandness).  That welcome innovation is best illustrated by a piece like the brief "Some KJAZZ Eternity," as a smoldering saxophone solo unfurls over a slow, sexy groove rendered vaguely hallucinatory by lingering smears of electric piano chords.  Rather than sounding like a bunch of white dudes in embarrassing hats trading solos, it instead evokes the shadowy, neon-lit interior of a strip club in a futurist noir, Blade Runner-esque version of Los Angeles.  Also of note: both "Some KJAZZ Eternity" and the similarly wonderful "Secondhand Identity" clock in at around two minutes, as Malkin seems to have little patience for meandering or lingering on a theme longer than necessary.  On one hand, it is a little exasperating that some of the best pieces on A Typical Night in the Pit are so damn brief, but I can also appreciate Malkin's "all killer, no filler" approach.  While he may not always fully capitalize on his strongest ideas, Malkin is rarely guilty of allowing a theme to overstay its welcome at all. 

Although A Typical Night is largely defined by its prominent jazz influence, jazz is far from the only influence that is evident on the album: Malkin is more of an eclectic and chameleonic experimentalist than anything resembling an aspiring traditional jazzman.  In fact, the album's jazzier inspirations seem to come primarily by way of Malkin's love of '70s & '80s Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph films and their scores.  For the most part, Malkin's experimental tendencies are limited to hazy production touches and a very fluid approach to genre boundaries with these nine songs, but some more overt weirdness does surface near the end of the album.  For example, the impressionistic "Perfect Terminal" blends together rippling piano ambiance, shuffling and echoing percussion flourishes, a stuttering digitized voice, and an elegantly blurred saxophone solo, while the blurting and disjointed "Estacionamiento Privado" resembles the kind of mutant, deconstructed funk that might have come out of the late '70s Sheffield industrial scene.  Elsewhere, Malkin takes a lighter and more playful approach with "Sixth Street Conversation," channeling his jazzier impulses in endearingly plinking, herky-jerky fashion.  My favorite piece on the album, however, is probably "Through a Rain-Streaked Window," which enhances Malkin's "noir jazz" aesthetic with some nice vaporwave/Not Not Fun-style pop touches in the form of a structured progression of warm synth chords.  It still feels a bit too artfully disjointed and deconstructed to fully resemble a "pop song," but it comes close enough to feel like a half-remembered fever dream homage to synth-driven '80s hookiness.

My sole real critique of this A Typical Night in the Pit is merely that only a few pieces stick around long enough to feel fully formed, which makes the album feel like a teasing glimpse of greatness rather than a completely satisfying effort.  Pointing that out feels a little wrong and unfair though, as I am otherwise thoroughly impressed and delighted by this album as an artistic statement (and its elusive, dreamlike character is almost certainly by design).  Malkin has conjured up quite a wonderful and unique stylistic niche for himself and his execution is damn near flawless, as I absolutely love how everything sounds (particularly the stand-up bass and the saxophones).  I also enjoy all the subtly hallucinatory touches in the periphery, as voices and field recordings unpredictably and enigmatically drift in and out as the album unfolds.  From a production and arrangement standpoint, A Typical Night is an absolute master class.  Moreover, Malkin wisely keeps the entire album grounded in a solid melodic structure, so there are very few passages that feel unmemorable or weightlessly ethereal.  Consequently, I sincerely hope Malkin decides to explore this direction further in the future, as A Typical Night in the Pit is an inventive, understated, and eminently listenable gem that feels like the potential precursor to an absolutely brilliant follow-up.  For now, however, this release is quite possibly the strongest album to date from either Malkin or Soda Gong.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 23 March 2020 07:23  


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