Featuring producer Dan the Automator and singer/songwriter/violinist Emily Wells, the trip-hopping group Pillowfight sound like a downtempo throwback to the heyday of Morcheeba, Portishead, and Zero 7. That might be a shorter stroll for Wells' fans, since they're more used to the tempo and temperament of this slinky album, but for Dan Nakamura regulars, there's much less mirth than usual to be had, even less than his work with the Gorillaz. Jump to the breakup number "Rain" ("Broken flowers, broken vases/Crazy glued, and taped in places") and this debut seems perfect for crashing on plush chase lounges placed in the most tasteful of downtown lofts, meaning this is light years away from the "space doo-doo pistols" of Dr.
For the majority of Dan the Automator’s initial fanbase, I’d wager most figure he hasn’t been very busy the past few years. I know the last time I heard his name being attached to anything new was a mixtape series for the 2K Sports video game franchise. That was 2006. Meanwhile, not only was Dan decidedly not not busy, he’d shifted from hip-hop to more band-oriented work much as Danger Mouse did over the same period.
Throughout the 43 minutes of Pillowfight’s self-titled debut LP, vocalist/lyricist/violinist Emily Wells constructs verses that challenge Taylor Swift for the accolade of most innocent pop songstress. Backed by Dan the Automator’s collection of subtle ivory runs, muffled trumpet trills, and abbreviated string arrangements, Wells recounts the frustrations of a tumultuous relationship on “Sleeping Dogs”: “I can’t seem to give up, please don’t say goodbye / I’ll call you up and say, ‘I’ve been thinkin’ bout you baby and I’m back to stay’ / You were never just a memory, I knew we’d meet again / Thank you for forgiveness, thanks for giving in. ” Fortunately for Swift, the darker side of Well’s past relationships, most vividly recalled on album opener “Used to Think”, eliminate her from such a prize.
Few would deny that Dan "the Automator" Nakamura makes records sound great. Over a career spanning two decades, he's worked on albums by artists such as Gorillaz, Prince Paul, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and Cornershop that had an immediate and widespread impact on the way other producers recorded music; one that trickled up to affect the pop charts' upper echelons, and established beyond reasonable doubt that Nakamura has some of the best ears in the industry. But his new project, Pillowfight, makes me wonder if he still knows what to do with them.