There's something about a producer's album that's more attractive than an emcee's mixtape -- especially one coming from an artist like J-Dilla or Nicolay. Perhaps it's just that a consistency in the musical vision, with a kaleidoscope of lyrical perspectives -- instead of the other way around -- is more familiar to fans of rock, jazz and other album-oriented fare.
Armstead Brown is a local beat producer who's taken that cue, releasing his solo debut Fieldwork: 17 tracks that show a consistency of voice and vision, even as his guests run the gamut of 'Burgh underground talent, and even a few NYC emcees. In general, Brown, who's also keyboardist and co-founder of the group Eviction Notice, sets up a nice groove, and then doesn't really fuck with it. A track like "Boroughs," featuring Thelonius Stretch, gets its power from the simple repletion of a couple of sampled measures.
It's an approach that serves Brown well, as he incorporates soul horns and R&B grooves, jazz-piano samples, the occasional flourish of strings, and creamy Rhodes (especially on the smooth-sounding yet lyrically barbed "Free Love"). The flash is generally reserved for the emcees, or on "Hardcore Headz," resident wax whiz Supa C.
There's always a danger in letting other people do the talking, so it's probably good that Brown narrates the seemingly autobiographical track "Fire," telling the life of "a lab rat in the studio" over a jazz shuffle and smooth piano chords. "If there's heat you want, I supply it / A beat you want, you could buy it / You know you can't deny it / It's fire ..."
Equally telling and appropriate is the album's cover art, a digital image by Shane Pilster. Green fields serve double duty as mixer faders, a great summation of what's within the sleeve: There's a lot growing in here, green shoots pushing up through the soil and into the sunlight. Pick 'em while they're fresh.