Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 28: DADO v. The Universe (Shape King, 2016)

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After a brief and goofy introductory nose-trumpet fanfare, DADO v. The Universe begins.

The album’s seemingly lofty title—a title which alludes to the many personal and practical hurdles that Raphael Peterson, a.k.a. SHAPE KING, faced in bringing this project into existence—is immediately and hilariously undercut by the message of the tip-toeing opening track, titled “Get Mine,” in which our anti-hero proclaims, “I just wanna get mine. I can’t save the world, I don’t have the time.” We come to learn that in fact there is a battle raging about-but-out-of-sight-from this college-educated, comfort-obsessed Bacchus; but he simply prefers—and has the necessary privilege—to enjoy his wine and Laceycakes in peace upon his plush recliner. In one of the lovelier lines I’ve heard in a long while—and this is an album brimming with lovely lines—Peterson sings: “I’ll quantify the crimson drops that tickle on my tongue / and turn them into points of pleasure ‘til the battle’s done.”

It’s this quantification of things that would or should otherwise be unquantifiable—wine drops, comfort, and people alike—and the subsequent possibilities for their exchange and exploitation that drives Peterson here. To turn into numbers is, in essence, to de-essentialize. The digitalization of the world.

Throughout the otherwise austerely orchestrated song, the stereo field is littered with the dings and cha-chings of cash registers and the rhythmic tape-advancement of accounting calculators. The sounds, that is, of the commerce of an earlier, mechanical era.

The album continues with the wholly different tune called, “We Are Together,” which, refuting the self-centeredness of the previous track’s narrator, bursts forth with the smiling-eyed awareness of a thousand contingencies and a contingency. And what could be more feel-good than contingency? We could be so many things and we’re all together. The tune’s emphatic steady pulse pushes one to dance—while wily synth lines titter and spin. Peterson’s melody here can’t be beat, and with the subtle and effective shifting between 5/4 and 6/4, it’s got just enough going on to keep you on your toes.

There is an earnestness to Peterson’s music that is undeniably endearing, and it doesn’t hurt that DADO v. The Universe is overflowing with quality songwriting and performance both.

The third track, "Bushwick Bitch," is, in Peterson’s words, “an ode to an idea of the Bushwick Woman: erudite, articulate, well-educated, beautiful, tattooed, crass.” He adds that, “It’s also a critique of people of any gender who embody some of those characteristics air-dropping into Brooklyn and altering neighborhoods.” The narrator, in hushed and distorted tones, sing-speaks his complicated adoration of her ways, and his urge to spend the night—wanting her to set him right.

“Bushwick Hitch” could be read as the culmination of this set-up. A love song sung so sincerely that not even the nearly silly, tourist-island counter-rhythmic xylophone nor the in-your-face wobbly synth can take it down. Pretensions drop like hairpins and blue jeans.

The eighth track, “Odyssey,” takes as its premise the idea of a modern-day Odysseus, trying to make it home, tempted by the Siren song of needing to check his phone. He is, as the tune begins, already comfortably complacent—much like the couch-bound lead of the opening track—but begins to feel a resurgence of will, only to plonk down again on account of all those blinking lights and vibrating encasements that promise something better, but in the end of course can’t deliver. The song ends with a whiff of hope, with our Odysseus seemingly ready to overcome his obstacles, aiming for that something better still waiting for him at home. 

According to Peterson, “[Odyssey] goes hand in hand with ‘Virtual Vacation’,” the track that precedes it—a wordless soundscape featuring the thick, low, white noise of waves. It’s intended, he says, “to be the sound of watching a video about a vacation on your phone while on vacation.” To my mind, “Virtual Vacation” in turn goes hand in hand with track five, called “Waterfall.” One of the melodic themes from “Waterfall” rocks atop “Vacation”’s waves, slowly corrupting its ending with crunchier, spookier harmonies as it loops, until it finally finds home again, resolving into a major triad.

“Waterfall” itself is masterful. As with so many of these tracks, the presence of familiar sounds of bygone eras laden with cultural baggage—in this case a descending 8-bit waterfall—is both intentional and welcome. Peterson’s lyrics are flawless here: “And when I get to the top I’ll let all my worries go / I’ll fall down in a veil and drop like a heavy stone / and drag myself from the bottom then rise again.” The floating melodic line on “heavy stone” gorgeously counters any expectation for pat text-painting. The chorus, awash as it is with cave-like reverberation, compounds the chant-influenced, meditative feel of the song.

While not a concept album per se, connections run through the album between many songs. Such struts and ties—intentional or no—help make DADO V. The Universe the alluring tensegrity structure that it is.

I can’t speak highly enough about this album and strongly urge you to head over to shapeking.bandcamp.com to, you know, get yours.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.