This record is all over the place. But in a good way. Stitched together from seven albums’ worth of material that this Chicagoan singer, multi-instrumentalist and inveterate collaborator had assembled on his hard drive but never released, ‘Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun’ is a perfectly ramshackle delight. The album’s 15 cuts veer effortlessly from Ligeti-style atonality through dizzy samba funk, lugubrious late-night jazz sketches, lysergic Brainfeeder electro-gloop, to skeletal ambient clatter and Waits-style hobo poetry without breaking a sweat. It’s testament both to Gay’s voracious appetite for sonic invention and the deftness of his execution that the journey never feels tedious. ‘Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun’ is a lot of things – fun, heavy, angular, smooth, complex, straightforward, dissonant, groovy, psychedelic, chilled – but it’s never boring. You might take a few tries before you fully dig it. But you’ll get there in the end.
Gay has been working on the various albums contributing to ‘Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun’ since 2011. If it’s a shame that such high-quality product has been hidden from earshot ’til now, once you realise just how busy Gay has been over the past few years you could forgive him for slipping his solo work onto the back burner. In 2017 alone he added cornet cameos to Jaimie Branch’s phenomenal ‘Fly Or Die’, oversaw the limber agit-funk of Bottle Tree and laid down a slew of righteous vibrations as part of drummer Makaya McCraven’s ensemble. If you missed those, you may have caught him working with Theaster Gates’s Black Monks of Mississippi, Nicole Mitchell’s EarthSeed, Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone, Matthew Lux’s Communication Arts Quartet, Joshua Abrams’s Natural Information Society or Bitchin Bajas … no? More fool you, my friend. Whatever, this guy’s diary is hectic.
But having taken so long to emerge, ‘Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun’ doesn’t waste any time getting under your skin. The squelchy woodwind of ‘Muhal’ and twanging syncopation of ‘Music for 18 Hairdressers’ – did I mention that LaMar Gay has a knack for song titles? – are an early one-two with enough potency to teleport us out of our everyday existence into an alternate universe, one that mashes Afrofuturism and Tropicalia into a transformative brew for body and mind. The first half majors on a propulsive, sticky euphoria that would be claustrophobic if you had the chance to catch your breath. Fortunately the kaleidoscopic whirl of drums, horns and voices ensures that doesn’t happen. Even when the reverberant cornet of ‘Me, Jave & The Big Bee’ ushers in more tranquil mood just before the halfway point – like being unceremoniously dumped from a party bus into the middle of a desert – the pause in momentum provides welcome relief.
That doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to enjoy in the records more reflective back end. Here the beats are more muted, electronics swirl in shady pools and Gay’s vocals are a mellow croon. The instrumental ‘Melhor Que Tem’ floats by in wafts of nostalgic haze of half-recognised melodies, and the perky jam of ‘Oh no… not again!’ has an unhurried gait even as it morphs from post-bop chill into prickly, battered repetitions. By the time the record snaps to its finish, you’ll be wishing Gay had gone the full nine yards and dumped all of those seven unreleased albums onto Bandcamp. Ah well. We can hope, can’t we?