Alex Hall and Emil Amos, founding members of Portland, Oregon psych instrumentalists Grails, take a step toward sample-happy, hip-hop-influenced sounds with the formation of side project Lilacs & Champagne. While Grails' later experimental epics wring hypnotic sounds from organic instruments, Lilacs & Champagne's self-titled debut refines that approach some and applies it to a smattering of obtuse samples and sound sources. Influenced deeply by the fractured hip-hop productions of Madlib and J-Dilla, the record was written and performed primarily using an Akai MPC sampler. While the vocal fragments at the close of "Lilacs" or disorienting, truncated dual snares of "Everywhere, Everyone" suggest this influence, the songs take on a far more kitchen-sink approach than Dilla or Madlib's streamlined psychedelic beats. Dilla's signature use of negative space was one of the most groundbreaking aspects of his productions, and it's an attribute that's been lost on a lot of his followers. While live instrumentation colors the songs nicely with synth tones and proggy guitar runs, the sample choices and placement make or break the tunes. Be they tasteful (ominous string sections and reverbed waterfowl underscoring the tension of "Corridors of Power II"), played-out (the repeating snippets of televangelist banter about the devil on "Nice Man"), or irritating (distant vocals from a different song out of tune with the stoney guitar noodling of "Laid Fucking Back"), the samples run rampant throughout, often competing for focus with the rest of the compositions. In spite of the often crowded landscapes, the duo somehow manages to avoid a cluttered sound. The jammy quality of the live instrumental contributions make the record sound like a novice take on DJ Shadow's sample-based music blueprint Endtroducing with someone intermittently soloing over top. In other moments the same exploratory riffing brings to mind dark soundtrack passages from low-budget '70s movies to excellent effect. While the inclusion of MPC-derived beats expand the Grails' sound some, Lilacs & Champagne still sounds very much like what it is; Grails' contributors finding their legs in a land they're not totally familiar with. There are some missteps and some rookie mistakes here, but ultimately, the collaged beats and convergences of found sounds stumble onto brilliance more often than they fall to the wayside.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas