Earlier this year, James Ferraro released a free mixtape entitled Silica Gel under his Bodyguard moniker. With track titles like “SEX TAPE” and “RAIDEN – BLUE LIGHTS # NZT – 48” (mind the caps), it was a messy Soundcloud-fi opus dedicated to bedroom r&b and internet inanity, and while not entirely without merit, it was definitely among his least memorable efforts to date.
Well, now he’s back with a new James Ferraro album proper, and it follows in that mixtape’s footsteps. Sushi is a more coherent affair than Silica Gel, but it’s no less seedy. Once again, track titles tell part of the story; his obsession with consumerism is still here (“Baby Mitsubishi,” “Jet Skis & Sushi”), but this time around he seems more focused on parodying a clueless white kid’s conception of ghetto tropes (“Playin Ya Self,” “Condom,” “Booty Call”). Indeed, “Powder” and “Jump Shot Earth” open the album by combining the MIDI bubbles FX of last year’s Far Side Virtual with a decidedly dubby aesthetic, deep synth bass just barely holding up fragmented hip-hop rhythms and chopped-and-screwed vocal samples that most clearly recall the helium vocals of earlier efforts like Night Dolls with Hairspray. So in a way, Sushi can be seen as both an amalgamation of Ferraro’s concerns up to this point and an extension of that sound in an unexpectedly dance-friendly direction.
Bass defines this album in contrast to his previous releases. It’s present on every track here, providing a grounded framework on which he can romp with his synths and computers. Not to say he’s unleashing his inner Timbaland or anything, but there’s a rhythmic focus here that we haven’t really heard from Ferraro before, at least not prior to Silica Gel. He even taps into what we might call his inner Pantha Du Prince on the bells-heavy “Baby Mitsubishi.” Fortunately for us, however, he still doesn’t seem to be taking himself too seriously, a quality that perhaps more than any other makes his work palatable in a non-ironic context. The saxophone stabs and 80s-buddy-cop-movie melody of “Flamboyant,” the almost comically hyperactive vocal sampling on “Playin Ya Self” and “Lovesick,” the self-consciously retro synth swells of “E 7”; here is an album that seems to delight in the sound of itself, repeating its sampled phrases in two-to-three-minute bursts and taking little time to stop and catch its breath over the course of its 36 minutes.
Unfortunately, this album is missing one of two things: atmosphere or songcraft, take your pick. I mean, there are some really catchy moments here, but without the gauzy droning nu-age ambience of Clear and Discovery or the conceptual themes of Far Side Virtual and Last American Hero, Sushi would have to rely on the strength of its songs in order to be a complete success. But no; instead we get the same kind of bubble noises and Vocoder gasps and clipped vocals over and over, not quite ad nauseum but certainly to the point of tedium. It feels like Ferraro had about an EP’s worth of solid, original ideas here upon which he felt either artistically or contractually obligated to expand, only instead of expanding his sound he just looped it a few times and laid down the occasional synth string/brass or sampled expletive in the hopes of spicing things up. Seriously, how many times do we need to hear glass shattering or the juvenile scream FX? We get it; Ferraro’s still as “zany” as ever, despite his seemingly muted new aesthetic (complete with his least gaudy cover art to date). In fact, the cover art–the album’s title, written in black superimposed in faux-embossed style on a black background–sums up this album’s sound. It’s new, at least for Mr. Ferraro, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard or seen before. Indeed, much like black-on-black text, it’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, and there isn’t that much here to pay attention to in the first place. Like Silica Gel, Sushi isn’t a bad album; it’s just disappointingly mediocre, and I expect better than that from the psychedelic underground’s clown prince of Cool Runnings and backseat-of-grandma’s-