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Album Review: Pretty Lights changes it up with A Color Map of the Sun

Posted by Brandon Vesely on 07/15 at 03:24 PM

Grade: B

Pretty Lights, an established force in the electronic muic industry, released his newest full length album, A Color Map of the Sun, on Tuesday, July 2.

The man behind the music is Derek Vincent Smith, who produces innovative, experimental music that mixes elements of electronic, hip-hop, and other genres, and frequently employs samples of well-known songs from a variety of genres and previously recorded tracks.

A Color Map of the Sun is Smith’s first full-length release in about three years, and is available for free on his website.  Smith has frequently expressed his belief that music should be accessible to everyone and has the power to unify and empower communities.  Fittingly, his website offers free downloads of Pretty Lights releases as well as albums and demos from other artists on his self-created Pretty Lights Music Label.  Notable artists who work with Pretty Lights Music include Michal Menert, Paper Diamond, and Elliot Lipp.

With his newest release, Smith took a step away from digital sampling and experimented with original composing and songwriting.  Unlike his previous releases, A Color Map of the Sun was recorded in its entirety at a Brooklyn studio with on spot musicians under Smith’s direction.

The album’s opening track, “Color of My Soul” is a funky track that starts out with Smith’s softer electronic musing and eventually builds to a more dynamic groove that employs jazzy vocals and brass instrumentals.  The track’s cozy feel sets the tone for the remainder of the album.

“Color of My Soul” is followed by “Press Pause,” which continues the intro track’s soft, bluesy aura with improvisational brass licks and soulful vocals.

The album’s third track, “Let’s Get Busy,” picks up the pace with unsettled chord progressions, hip-hop vocals, and heavier electronic drops.  The darker track is reminiscent of Smith’s earlier work, and guides the album into one of its more popular tracks, “Around the Block.”

“Around the Block” features Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli, and combines the heavier feel of “Let’s Get Busy” with the soft, funky feel of the album’s first two tracks.  Kweli became popular as a member of the rap group, Black Star.  Black Star, formed in the late 1990s, is one of my all-time favorite rap groups and Kweli’s presence makes “Around the Block” one of my favorite tracks on the album.

The album’s fifth track, “Yellow Bird,” is another one of my favorites, and starts out with a catchy electronic intro that gives off carefree, idyllic vibes.  The melodic song relies heavily on synthesizers, keyboards, and floating vocals.  The blissful track is sandwiched between two louder tracks, the preceding “Around the Block” and the album’s sixth track, “Go Down Sunshine.”

“Go Down Sunshine” includes heavier, rock-driven instrumentals combined with the album’s continuous funk rhythms.  All and all, the track is optimistic with hints of darkness created by the instrumentals.

Next up is “So Bright” - the album’s most popular track.  “So Bright” features Eligh, an underground rapper who was formerly part of the hip-hop group Living Legends.  Despite its title, “So Bright” is undoubtedly a darker track.  The deep crooning vocals, eerie keyboard work, and electronic musing in minor keys give the track its decidedly gloomier feel.  Still, the track has its definite high points, particularly where Smith includes Eligh’s rapping.  The album-defining track combines elements of Smith’s earlier work with this album’s newfound style, and serves as an apt divider for the album’s two halves.

The album’s eighth track, “Vibe Vendetta”, mixes tip-toeing synth work with flowing, string-influenced rips and the occasional electronic drop to create a nostalgic, wavy track with occasional crests, punctuated by electronic peaks and hip-hop vocals.

“Vibe Vendetta” is succeeded by “Done Wrong,” a swoon song with synth-driven dips and peaks accompanied by flashy electronic hooks.

The album’s three final tracks, “Prophet,” “Always All Ways,” and “My Only Hope” continue the alternating highs and lows of the two preceding tracks with soft keyboard-driven instrumentals and short bursts of electronic effects and rock guitar.  In many ways these tracks blend together into one low-key instrumental mix, and make the album’s conclusion somewhat redundant.

The deluxe addition of the album includes raw recordings of studio sessions that chronicle the album’s cutting-edge production and innovative mixing and songwriting.

On one hand, I appreciate Smith’s willingness to branch out from his tried-and-true formula of sample-driven music with a healthy dose of electronic drops, but on the other I prefer the musical style of his previous albums like Filling Up the Skies and Passing Behind Your Eyes.  Smith’s style on these sophomore albums attracted me to his music in the first place and allowed him to become one of my favorite electronic artists.  The album left my simultaneously intrigued and disappointed, possibly because it was not what I was expecting.

That said, the album is still fresh and innovative, and will probably appeal to Pretty Lights fans who are ready for a change.  Check the album out on prettylightsmusic.com and decide for yourself.

{name} Author: Brandon Vesely
Bio: Brandon Vesely is originally from the Pittsburgh area and is currently a junior majoring in Public Relations and Spanish at Penn State. In his free time he enjoys reading, writing, biking, and spending time outdoors. His musical interests are wide-ranging and include a variety of alternative genres including post-hardcore, indie, noise pop, and pop punk. Some of his favorite artists are Bayside, Yeasayer, Phantogram, and Fireworks.

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