On a remarkable new album one encounters all-over-the-map alchemical brilliance from the Black Mountain sonic savant.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Soul man. Funk fan. Dub star. Vintage rock ‘n’ roll master.
Seth Kauffman’s been fêted with all these sobriquets over the past decade in Floating Action, the one-man studio blender where the Black Mountain native conjures up his self-described “lo-fi North Carolina funk.” But is Is It Exquisite? really, well, exquisite? Though Kauffman is likely referring to a host of human experiences with that query (your music experience definitely being one of them), the answer here is a resounding and unimpeachable, hell, yes.
Rather than the rote nostalgia such sonic touchstones often yield, Kauffman’s songs hum with the vibrancy of both true believer and radical alchemist. Mile-wide grooves, catchy melodies and dubby textures are cannily crafted together to shade the vulnerable and occasionally spiritual subject matter in sunny fare — “I’m a soul lying naked and scared,” Kauffman confesses on “My Ticket Out of Here,” as fuzzy keys, a fat bottom end and boom-bap beats eventually flower into a blast of guitar distortion that’s more joyous release than check-out-these-chops solo.
Those traits should sound familiar to Floating Action devotees, and these 11 tracks don’t veer far from the sonic foundations that Kauffman finds so durable; by that yardstick change remains gradual in the Floating Action world. But to focus solely on the nuance is to miss the point almost entirely here. These solid structures allow Kauffman to graft pretty much anything he can think of onto these songs, and that’s something that he seems to somehow get better at with each passing LP. (As a rare twangy example of his songs’ malleability, check out the free download from 2008, Live at the Grey Eagle.)
And so it goes with Is It Exquisite? Vintage Tonto-like synths and chopped-up beats highlight the pleading opener “Don’t Desert Me,” the soulful “Seek Then I Found” seems to resurrect Teenie Hodges’ magic guitar fills, and Kauffman even throws some vintage scratching onto “The Silent One,” transforming it from lonely hymn to Sedgwick Avenue hoe-down. A subtle, swirling mellotron haze accompanies the catchy choruses of “My Blood Is Bright Red,” while disc-closer “Controlled Burn” offers a master class in dubby texturing (its 11-minute run-time might be the LP’s one overindulgence). Even a couple of finger-picked acoustic numbers—”Last of the Wild Cards” and “Won’t Be Long”—transform into something greater via chopped beats or subversive syncopation.
Kauffman would probably (and rightly) bridle at the “musician’s musician” tag—though accompanying the latest publicity are imprimaturs from past collaborators Jim James, Dan Auerbach and Angel Olsen, among others. After all, musicians shouldn’t be the only ones spellbound by Floating Action’s alchemical brilliance. These songs are, simply put, great songs, arguably the best Floating Action set yet, and their adaptability to Kauffman’s studio R&D testifies to their fundamental versatility.
Will a larger audience ever catch up? Who knows. For now, and again, the lucky ones are just floating along in Kauffman’s idyllic future past. Come, join us.
Consumer/collector note: For vinyl nuts, in addition to a standard black vinyl release, about 200 copies were pressed on colored vinyl, and colors were inserted randomly in sleeves so fans didn’t know what color they were getting until they opened the package. There is also a cassette edition via Baby Tooth. Those who preordered Exquisite from PIAPTK or Baby Gas Mask Records also received a bonus lathe cut 7” picture disc of Floating Action covering Pepi Ginsberg’s “The Waterline” and a 12×18″ poster.