Click to hear: “Anchored Boat”
Trails, a collaboration between turntablist and producer Josh Thelin (theLin) and rapper Syn the Shaman, is that relatively rare rap pair in which the DJ overshadows the MC. No disrespect to Syn, who does solid work on the duo’s debut, Fits & Starts, but it’s theLin’s imaginative, cinematic soundscapes that make this album noteworthy.
We first heard theLin on his promising 2009 EP, Metal on Metal. His compositions drape layers of synth over bob-inducing beats, with cuts and samples all over the place and sections of live instrumentation. Brilliant stuff.
Syn the Shaman (a.k.a. KGB of Live Poets, The Flavor Bakers, et al.) has circled the block a few more times. “Been in the game since age 12 / 30 now, so do the math / It’s ridiculous / My rap career’s old enough to buy cigarettes,” he raps on “Carbon Copy Free-For-All.”
But that line’s as clever as Syn gets on Fits. There’s no mad wordplay, brainy cultural references or feats of verbal dexterity. For the most part, he just tells it like it is. “I don’t brag about fights / I don’t flaunt the dirt I’m doin’ / I ain’t got nothin’ to prove to anybody except my self,” he declares on “Carbon Copy.”
Syn’s lyrics vacillate between determination and self-doubt, the regrets of an underground rapper tiring of the struggle to get noticed and get paid. “So fuck a Facebook and a MySpace page / I’m trying to buy this house / Start acting my age / My daughter starts junior high and I’m still gettin’ high / A slight drinking problem but we’re still gettin’ by,” he says on “Anchored Boat,” the funkiest track here.
The rest of the songs toggle between brooding and groovy, with a generous dose of humor thrown in. “Heavy Fever,” featuring vocals by Kristina Kentigian, is accented with killer stabs of sampled guitar. Guitarist Jeff Barrell plays live on three tracks, including “It Goes On,” with also features choice vocals by Kelly McKenna (of Sly-Chi). I’m pretty sure that’s a tiny snippet of Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In” providing the percussive funk here, but it’s just one flavor in a rich sonic stew.
“Tiki Torch,” which also features McKenna and Barrell, is another great example of theLin’s deft production, a four-minute movie for your ears. The interlude “Here Let Me Explain” first makes you laugh, then makes your jaw drop.
There aren’t many underground rap albums mastered at Gateway’s world-class studio in downtown Portland. This one was. So put on your headphones and dig in. You’ll soon be seeing trails yourself.
— Chris Busby
For more on Trails, visit trailsounds.com.