Jon Kennedy – Corporeal album review

Trip hop is dead. Okay, not dead but maybe doomed. It’s not that there aren’t great offerings by artists working within the idiom, it’s just that there’s a hard cap that’s already been hit. Trip hop was probably ill fated at birth, because the seminal works of artists like DJ Shadow and Portishead caused a rapid peak for the fledgling genre, sending successors tumbling into an accelerated life-cycle from peak to saturation to obscurity. Works like DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing” and Portishead’s “Dummy” added new dimensions of performance, creativity, and finesse to instinctive hip hop grooves, and created the foundation for trip hop. But in the time since these influential albums were released in the mid-nineties, trip hop has been reluctant to yield new colors for its producer’s palette. Attempting to fuse novel and diverse styles into the beat-laden compositions is the name of the game, rather than the icing on the cake. It follows that the standard for good trip hop is pretty remote.

“Corporeal,” Jon Kennedy’s entry into the trip hop archives suffers a little from these limitations, even as it attempts to fuse so many different genres. Kennedy, the UK Drummer, DJ and producer, has in fact incorporated instrumentation with samples and synth, an approach that actually distinguishes “Corporeal” slightly from it’s predecessors. The opening track “Boom Clack,” collages gritty synth and wobbly dubstep bass and looped boom-bap drumming. There’s definitely an element of performance on display in this album. However, as the album progresses, and jazzy keyboard vibes or country-western guitar riffs or other extranea are forcibly injected into the vacuum-sealed soundscape of “Corporeal,” the inconsistency of tone becomes all too apparent. And while Kennedy’s grooves are often transfixing, they’re almost so perfect in their intuitiveness that the tracks feel sanitized rather than human. Smooth Jazz comes to mind a little too often. Factor in some painfully banal lyrics, and lack of transition work, and “Corporeal” seems downright mundane. That’s not the kind of description that bodes well for an album that conceits in its very title to take the listener on a journey of the senses. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few arresting moments in this album. The deep, soulful atmosphere of “Bossa No Var” is delectably concise.

Unfortunately, the occasional high points feel totally disjointed from the rest of the sprawling, meandering album. So while Jon Kennedy has succeeded in making an interesting collection of songs, the album as a whole feels very dated. It’s old hat. The trick with trip hop is that experimentation within the style just doesn’t yield stunning innovation. The albums that do rise to the top of trip hop are forged out of rare elements like pure virtuosity, exemplified by DJ Shadow, and visionary inspiration as in Portishead’s haunting masterpiece “Dummy.” Neither of these essential characteristics can be expounded upon much. You either have ‘it’ or you don’t, because the form of trip hop really takes care of itself. So while Jon Kennedy has found a technically interesting sound in “Corporeal,” the album just doesn’t have the soul (or body for that matter) to set it apart from the crowd. Few music styles are as formally narrow as trip hop, which also makes it an extremely top-heavy genre. The question is, can trip hop survive or will it ultimately collapse under the weight of its early influencers?

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