Graded on a Curve: Coultrain,
Phantasmagoria

Coultrain is the one-man project of Los Angeles-based poet, filmmaker and musician A.M. Frison. His work includes the “mythological cross-genre artist book” Wet Grass, its accompanying musical score The Bluest Blue (under the moniker Noble Metal), and a collaboration with Ben Lamar Gay and Tommaso Moretti as Bottle Tree. His latest as Coultrain is Phantasmagoria, a combination of Soulful stylistics and layered electronics that’s as smooth and warm as it is boundary-stretching and eclectic. It’s out April 9 with a vinyl-only bonus track via Positive Elevation, the newest sublabel from the indefatigable 577 Records of Brooklyn.

Tersely described by 577 as being dedicated to electronic experimentation and avant soul, the Positive Elevation imprint feels almost tailor made for Coultrain’s Phantasmagoria, a record that hits a sweet spot between a progressively lush mid-’70s Soulfulness and an electronic sensibility that places the contents firmly outside the mainstream but without undercutting the engaging, extroverted quality that’s inherent to soul music’s formal equation.

Much of Coultrain’s success as it pertains to the accessible is directly due to Frison’s singing, which might seem like a no-brainer, since a vocalist navigating varying degrees of the passionate is a crucial soul ingredient. But with that said, the enduring examples of the style’s greatness from its 1960s-’70s heyday combined rich vocalizing with an instrumental component of uncommon richness and verve, often honed by house bands (Stax, Motown, Hi).

Grit, either vocal or instrumental, was a variable element, welcome in the recipe but not integral and never dominant. When soul music declined in the hands of technology-wielding producers, grit all but evaporated, but that wasn’t the problem. Instead, it was a lack of imagination, as the new tools were too often used to merely contemporize old strategies, rather than to pursue fresh possibilities.

Phantasmagoria establishes A.M. Frison as having imagination to spare, with his embrace of electronics further emphasizing that neo-soul isn’t his bag, even as a consistent acknowledgement of tradition is present across this album. As a vocalist, Frison’s not a belter, instead cultivating a smooth approach that avoids the insubstantial as he frankly reminds me of ’70s Stevie Wonder.

I’ll stress that the comparison is a fairly understated, mainly because Frison isn’t striving to imitate Stevie, or anyone for that matter, but it’s also down to how Phantasmagoria is informed by aspects of electronic funk, as in a recurring passage from “Counterfeit,” and also hip-hop, a style particularly manifest in “The Essentials” and in the album’s late track “A Letter,” both of which brought Outkast to mind,

However, Coultrain, at least on this LP (I’ve not yet heard the project’s five previous efforts), is resistant to the readily graspable nature that brought hits to Outkast (also see: Gnarls Barkley). A possible exception that might prove me wrong is “The Straw Man,” though I ultimately believe the layered electronic strangeness (and what the PR describes as “re-worked percussion”) will prove a little (or a lot) too “out” for mass acceptance. Same with “Counterfeit,” with its cyclical electronic static.

This is just fine, as the slippery nature of Phantasmagoria directly relates to the titular dreamlike sensibility. Now, the terminology Dreamlike is often equated with the Surreal, and while that’s not an inappropriate term to apply to this album, I’ll stress that the quality is subtle, much less the bold head-fuckery of David Lynch and nearer to the comparative restraint of Luis Bunuel.

But the record’s most dreamlike trait is its interconnectedness, which is to say, the selections flow together into an increasingly enticing whole (that’s very much a grower). But this shouldn’t suggest Phantasmagoria isn’t peppered with individual highlights, and not just the tracks mentioned above; there’s “A Very Moment,” where the recurring element of (likely-synthetic) harp-pluck makes its first appearance on the LP as it inspired visions of Alice Coltrane, and even the buoyant vinyl-only bonus “This Artificial,” which is far from a repurposed throwaway.

The name of Frison’s project, the association with 577, and the above reference to Alice Coltrane will perhaps lead some readers to infer a tangible level of jazziness here, but other than the aforementioned harpy infusion, a spot that’s reminiscent of a pitch-shifted electric saxophone in the title track, and the late-arriving jazz-vocal redirect “Famous,” the cited jazz influence strikes me as implicit. More prominent are spurts and swells of synth amid the off-kilter soulfulness, as Phantasmagoria pushes Coultrain beyond the contemporary.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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