[ELECTRORGANIC] If you turned on the radio in 1939 and heard the Ink Spots' "If I Didn't Care," you'd be able to easily identify crooning voices, a softly strummed acoustic guitar and a touch of piano. Turn the radio on today and playing "name that sound" is a much tougher chore. Only the most astute producer could identify the software, samples, effects and recording techniques used to make a hit in the 21st century.
But even with such convolution of the recording process, many listeners search for music that sounds organic. Emancipator's Doug Appling has that down. His first full-length, Soon it Will Be Cold Enough to Build Fires, he recorded in 2006 at the tender age of 19. It sounded equally inspired by cool jazz, spy-movie soundtracks and Everlast's 1998 single "What It's Like." But at its best, the disc felt altogether unpretentious and unidentifiably organic; familiar, even. It was the music playing at the dance club in your dreams.
Appling, now based in Portland and somewhat of an internet sensation, has only refined his process for Safe in the Steep Cliffs. The disc is a thicker, guttier release than Soon, fusing Emancipator's freaky jazz side ("Kamakura," a collaboration with Japanese saxophonist Uyama Hiroto) with a healthy dose of inspiration from guys like Richard D. James and DJ Shadow ("Ares," "Bury Them Bones").
There's an overarching smoothness on Safe that at times pushes Emancipator into the New Age category. But it's that sheen which rewards repeated listens: You'll spend more time figuring out how Safe makes you feel than how it was made. CASEY JARMAN.
[TRICK HOP] It's hard to believe Oracle used to be a drab acoustic duo. On the band's sophomore record, Wake, siblings Orianna and Michael Herrman are joined by producer Keith Schreiner (of Dahlia) for a set of down-tempo, shifting electronic soundscapes. And though the band is clearly aiming to ride the current wave of electronic-based artists like Pyramiddd, it comes off instead like an adult-contemporary version of trip hop.
Often, on songs like "The Way You Move Me" and "Ethereal One," the gurgling backdrops and Orianna's icy vocals leave the listener feeling cold. Though Wake is trying to sound modern, it's hard to get past the fact that much of the album is stuck in the '90s. The canned, whooshing scratching noises in "An Inch to an Eye"—which sound like one of those pocket DJ toys all my friends used to annoy their parents in middle school—only distract from the strength of the simple arrangements.
Oracle is obviously gunning for Portishead territory, but the thing the band forgets is that the U.K. art-rock outfit completely changed direction on Third, its 2008 comeback album. To take an older sound (in this case, lead-footed hip-hop beats and acoustic guitar) and update it for a new decade, you can't just continue to pillage the same trusty records. Wake isn't a bad album; it's just one that belongs in another era. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
Oracle plays Thursday, Feb. 4, at Dante's with Storm Large. 9:30 pm. $8 in advance, $10 at the door. 21+. Emancipator plays Friday, Feb. 5, at Roseland Theater with Bassnectar. 9 pm. $20. All ages.