[Sprawl of sound] Blank Blue's Highwater Mark, Dead Panda's Mellow Dub

Far from the Mainstream
Blank Blue wave hello, Dead Panda dub you long time

Well, here's a sequel that's worth the wait: Western Water Music Vol. II (released May 6 on Ubiquity Records) comes almost five years after Pacific Drift: Western Water Music Vol. I, which Long Beach producer Elvin Estela recorded under his Nobody moniker. Now joined by vocalist Niki Randa and going by Blank Blue, Estela expands upon the psych-pop-with-head-nodding-beats mode wielded on Pacific Drift. Also, where Pacific Drift featured four outstanding cover versions of psych classics, Western Water Music Vol. II consists of all originals.

It should be stated upfront that Vol. II is a concept album, one that presents a surreal scenario in the near future. After a calamitous earthquake on the West Coast, millions die—but thousands somehow survive by ingesting poisonous subaquatic mushrooms that enable the uprooted humans to miraculously live underwater. The songs are about adapting to new environments and being responsive to the wisdom the psychic fish are imparting. I think that's the gist, but I haven't consumed enough psilocybin to be certain.

It should also be stressed that even if you think the concept is farfetched, Vol. II is nonetheless enjoyable on a purely sonic level. Estela's a seriously talented beatsmith, as anyone who has heard his productions for Busdriver's Roadkill Overcoat and his 2000 full-length debut Soulmates can attest. But while definitely funky at times, Vol. II isn't so much about getting people out on the dance floor as it is evoking the weird atmosphere of the ocean floor.

“A New Design” is a dark, spiraling, orchestral-rock mood setter, with Randa's voice woozily pretty in a sad-diva way, somewhere between Lush's Miki Berenyi and the United States of America's Dorothy Moskowitz. The overall effect is akin to a waltz tune seductively being subsumed by waves. “Eyes Closed” is gorgeous, subdued psych pop enhanced with wind chimes, strings and blissful flute tones. It also contains some of the most crisply recorded claps I've heard in a long time (crisp claps are underrated). The shimmering, smeared-guitar meditation of “Sonic What?!” makes you feel as if you're slowly swirling down a whirlpool. Detect a common thread? Good.

If there's a single on Vol. II, it's “All the Shallow Deep.” In a previous Sprawl of Sound, I called this track “excellent tropical bliss-hop,” and that description stands. (See “Pacific Motion,” Nov. 1, 2007.) “Sink all around me,” Randa coos, and it sounds like the most serenely pleasurable thing you could ever do. This is lilting funk that makes you feel giddy, even as you're plummeting to your demise.

Other highlights include “Faces,” the disc's funkiest track. Crispy fuzz bass and lightly acid-fried guitar, plus a surprise coda of funkadelic sweetness remind us why SoCal rappers keep Estela's celly vibrating off the proverbial hook. Similarly, “In the Swim” achieves an ideal balance between Parliament's “Aqua Boogie” and the Beatles' “Strawberry Fields Forever”—which may be a first in recorded history.

“In the Swim” exemplifies Blank Blue's musical thrusts: funk and psychedelia, twined like seaweed around squid limbs. (Speaking of farfetched, that analogy's probably not gonna float. By the way, Estela is one of the few cats in the world who could pull off wearing a Nehru jacket and an all-over-print hoodie.) “Sea Roars Lead” bobs on a tranquil tide of melismatic beauty, evoking that all-important end-credits poignancy. I would've preferred this track conclude Vol. II, but the “We Will Rock You”/”Give Peace a Chance” beat and slow dissolve of “Up” work nicely, too.

The core Blank Blue duo receive crucial accompaniment from Josh Teague, Ben Knight (guitarist for the Tyde), Dave Scher (guitarist/keyboardist for Beachwood Sparks) and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (string arranger for Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Daedelus and Carlos Niño). Everybody's on the same waterlogged page, helping to manifest that rare beast: the concept album that's in perfect harmony, lyrically and sonically.

For more information, visit www.myspace.com/blankblue.

Long Beach's Dead PandaMary Rubalcava (synths, beats), Box Carlos (beats), Saint Brendan (synth, beats, vocals)—purvey a laid-back dub indicative of voluminous ganja consumption, if one can be so bold as to speculate. (It's one of the universe's ironclad laws that dub/reggae musicians are fond of the herb. Show me one who isn't, and I'll show you a supermodel who doesn't do coke.)

Regardless of inherent 420ness, Dead Panda have made a wholly (if not holy) pleasant, self-released EP titled Million Dollar Gun. Some modern dub is very dissonant and disorienting, particularly that which springs from disciples of the On-U Sound roster, while another branch of modern dub stems from the short-lived illbient movement of the mid/late '90s. By contrast, Dead Panda's mellow brand of the genre seems to be as informed by shoegazer rock and the somber 4AD aesthetic as it is by Lee “Scratch” Perry. This is some blissful, heavy-lidded Jah-liness.

For more information, visit www.myspace.com/deadpandasoundsystem.

Dead Panda perform with Patsy Grind and Tic Tic Boom at Que Sera, 1923 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (562) 599-6170; www.thequesera.com. Wed., 9 p.m. $5.


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