This is an album that draws you in and remains fascinating throughout.
Sam Shepherd’s Floating Points project began in 2009, when he released a string of singles and EPs on Ninja Tune that blurred lines between jazz, house, and post-dubstep. The disparate styles he’s explored in his short career, as well as his long deliberation before releasing a full-length (his Shadows EP is close enough at 37 minutes), suggested his eventual debut would give his obtuse tangle of influences a coherent conclusion. But Elaenia, released this year on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, only raises more questions. This is forgivable, as Elaenia is the most enjoyable thing he’s released yet.
What distinguishes Elaenia from his past work is its consistency and uniformity of vision. Shepherd’s firmly in jazz mode here; the sonic milieu is pattering drums, snowy Rhodes, stately strings, and chirpy Herbie Hancock synths. A few tracks use sequencers, but they’re closer to something Cluster or Eno might keep on hand than Frankie Knuckles. Many of the sounds carry over from his older work, especially the handful of synth presets he uses, but someone only familiar with his housier fare might not recognize Elaenia as a work by the same artist.
Elaenia doesn’t succeed because it breaks new ground. It succeeds because it goes down like sugar. The harmonies are consonant throughout, and nothing is remotely ugly or confrontational. The vibe is consistently relaxed, and even as songs like “Thin Air” build and build, they retain largely the same level of emotional intensity (low). In fact, it’s so mellow that anyone worried Shepherd isn’t taking enough risks here–a valid gripe–need not worry. It’s hard to think of a less risky album than this, and whatever he does next will surely be gnarlier.
This is not a complaint. In fact, Elaenia works so well because it’s so consonant. It just feels good to listen to, and you might end up with a vacant smirk on your face listening to it on headphones (preferably in bed, on a cold night). Over speakers, it works great as background music, though it’s a bit too quiet to cut through most conversations. This is one of those albums that works in just about any environment (except, perhaps, early, early morning), and it’ll likely have a completely different effect on the mood depending on where you are.
I found Shepherd’s decision to end the album on an abrupt cut-off a bit cruel. The songs blend well enough together that a first-time listener might not realize 43 minutes have gone by by the time Shepherd pulls the plug on “Peroration Six,” and they might not be ready to drift back to reality yet. This ending could have worked better on a slightly longer album, or even if “Peroration Six” ran for a couple more minutes. But that speaks less to Shepherd’s poor decision-making and more to the magic of Elaenia. This is an album that draws you in and remains fascinating throughout. For an album that takes so few risks, that’s a feat.