Santogold – Santogold
Downtown Music (North America: 4/29/08; UK/Europe: 5/12/08)
Alternative / Dub / Ska / Punk
The buzz surrounding Santogold has been less of a buzz and more of a deafening, jackhammering sound across the various music media outlets. At the beginning of the year, music rags were tripping over each other to name Santi White as The Next Big Thing to happen to music. If you’re wondering what happened to Trevor Presiloski, well… he was involved in said press stampede representing this very site, but unfortunately he didn’t make it out, which is why we haven’t covered this artist yet, save for a mention in Fader magazine at the beginning of the year. Poor guy.
In any event, Santogold (a name that she supposedly acquired as a child from her friends, who may or may not had previously seen Blood Circus) fronted a local Philadelphia ska-punk outfit about five years ago, called Stiffed, which had connections with Bad Brains, and opened the window of opportunity for Santi to break out on her own as a solo artist. Signed to Lizard King Records (which at the time was called Marrakesh (sic) Records), she released the I Believe in Santogold EP last year, which was a success due to viral Internet distribution of tracks “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Creator”. Both of these tracks are included as remastered versions on this, the singer’s self-titled major-label debut.
One of the reasons why Santi’s been so hyped might be because of her work ethic, which has had her doing everything from partaking in Mark Ronson’s critically acclaimed Version project (covering The Jam’s “Pretty Green”) to touring with Björk, M.I.A. (whom she’s been likened to very much from a stylistic standpoint) and most recently Gnarls Barkley. And if you’ve watched TV or played a new sports video game in the last few months, chances are you’ve unknowingly been exposed to the two aforementioned tracks.
“L.E.S. Artistes” opens up the set, and if you’ve not heard it yet, perhaps the first thing that you’ll think of will be a slightly more punk-sounding Gwen Stefani with a small splash of Kim Deal. The production is lush with just the right smattering of chaos. This was apparently a pretty successful single, though I’m not sure if I would have selected it to kick off the album. Why not “Creator”? That a solid one, as it features production from electronic-music stalwarts Switch and FreQ Nasty, and comes out as a slowed-down and filthy electro-dancehall track that nicely capitalizes on FreQ’s breakbeat repertoire.
“Shove It” is straight-up dirty dub that’s a nice contemporary version of a genre that was made big by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Trojan Records. It features Naheem Juwan of Spank Rock, who’s also toured with Björk and M.I.A., incidentally), and really shines here on his verse and seems to very much in his element. “Say Aha” continues the with Jamaican vibe, though we go from chilled-out dub to some decidedly more uptempo ska—a genre in which Santi seems very much at home, and it shows.
Philadelphia’s DJ/hip-hop producer Diplo takes the reins on the dark electro-jabber of “Starstruck” and grabs a writing credit on “My Superman” and “Unstoppable”, which both carry that dirty-dub feel, though neither seem quite as genuine as the aforementioned “Shove It”. I understand that Diplo’s production style is a little rough-around-the-edges, but I want more straight-up dub, not to mention that the album would have benefited from it. And Santi nabs another Philadelphia head in skateboarding legend/punk rocker Chuck Treece, who plays the drums throughout the album and has collaborated with everyone from Pearl Jam, Urge Overkill and Bad Brains (appearing as a drummer for live performances) to Amy Grant, Sting (remixer for both) and Billy Joel (responsible for the bass line on “River of Dreams”). I’ve honestly been trying to find a way to tie a Billy Joel reference into one of my reviews for months, now, so thankyaveddymuch, Mr. Chuck Treece.
The airy indie-rock track, “Lights Out” is pretty good for what it is, but seems a bit out of place here. So maybe it’s a heartfelt track, as evidenced by Santi’s vocals, but if anything it should have either been bumped to the end of the set or recorded by Feist with a writing credit by Santi. The same could be said for “I’m a Lady” (featuring Canadian singer Trouble Andrew), though I wouldn’t argue against its placement near the end of the set.
The electro-dub of “Anne” closes out the set before we’re treated to a BONUS remix of the ska-laden “You’ll Find a Way”, which gets a stripped-down dub treatment here, compliments of Switch and Sinden. It wasn’t bad, but could have been omitted and instead placed on an import single, and I wouldn’t have complained. Did I mention that it’s really stripped-down? Yes, I did, but I forgot for a moment there because I was starting to fall asleep. I guess that’s not fair to Santogold; I work third shift, and I’m writing this review at eight in the morning.
So I guess the question remains… is Santogold worth all of the hype? Well, like a lot of albums, it has ups and downs, and while the downs are less of an issue of sucking and more of an issue of lack of resonance throughout the set, the highs are very much highs in that this artist is doing things that only been done before by the most esoteric of artists. If she’s expected to bring this sound to the mainstream, much like her contemporary, M.I.A. (who produced much of the album alongside Santi and Clifford “Moonie” Pusey of Steel Pulse), that’s going to serve her and industry well. The overall vibe of the album is that of a girl who grew up listening to The Specials and the Pixies (and probably The Selecter, too), and has managed to use those as influences (along with her electro buddies) without sounding like a copycat. This is an enjoyable album, and while I’d be wincing and sucking air through my clenched teeth in the general direction of anyone proclaiming it as THE Album of the Year, it’s definitely going to be showing up in plenty of year-end lists, and I likely won’t be disagreeing with that. So, I guess it’s worth some of the hype. At least I’m not likening it to Cloverfield.
Oh yeah, and she gets an extra half star for making it a point to openly eschew R&B and rap, telling reporters that she’s “not like Ciara” and those other “brown girls.” Well, she’s not as hot as Ciara, but I definitely respect her much more as a musician.
Tags: Björk, M.I.A., Pearl Jam, Sting