Four years on from his epochal sophomore release, Beauty and the Beat, and Edan‘s absence is palpable. Hip-hop fans recognize that his combination of oft-kilter humor, enthusiasm for ’60s rock and psychedelic music, and impeccable technical abilities are a rare commodity and any new material from Mr. Portnoy is cause for celebration. Echo Party is not a traditional release, however, it is a continuous 30-minute mix sourced from old-school classics from the back catalog of Traffic Entertainment Group.
Echo Party begins with the warm crackle of vinyl accompanying a classic Jazzy Five verse, sounding like a typical re-edit-athon in the vein of Peanut Butter Wolf’s perfunctory 45 Live set. An unexpected synth line here, a vocal cut-up there, and the album transitions quickly from old-school DJ mix to something more akin to John Oswald’s Plunderphonics experiments. Edan isn’t using instrumentation to serve the vocal tracks; instead the various MC’s exhortations (Edan does not rap) are just another aspect of the record’s sonic texture.
Echo Party was originally intended to be a stop-gap release for Edan, a brief project that would serve as a showcase for his mixing skills and get him back in the public eye, with the added bonus of promoting the old-school gems in Traffic’s back catalog. The record became a major project, with Edan adding his own instrumentation to the tracks — including guitar and kazoo — and the constantly shifting nature of the piece betrays a meticulous process. The result has more in common with Jim O’Rourke’s laborious one-man show, The Visitor, than any hip-hop record released this year, and recalls Bay Area experimenter Wobbly’s forgotten masterpiece Wild Why.
Echo Party transcends the stigma of the stopgap release — exacting, adventurous, and cohesive, it is a major work. It is the fastidious nature of the record, however, that makes it a disappointment. If an artist is obsessed enough to labor over what is essentially a side project in such detail, why not just release a new full-length? Indeed, Echo Party sounds like hard work rather than a fun distraction, and it is worth wondering if the effort expended here means another half-decade of waiting before anything new from Edan. Obsession with detail is one of the most appealing qualities of his work, but it’s also one of the most frustrating. Echo Party bears this out in painstaking detail.