"Elvis, What Happened?"

cLOUDDEAD poses this rhetorical question in their opening "Pop Song," off their inspired, ambitious, and devastatingly gorgeous second album "Ten." We might want to ask MCs why?, odd nosdam, and Doseone the same question. 

This album files so far off the radar that it often times gives the impression that it was sent as an alien signal to show we humans how it was done. Hopefully, like other great artists who have established the otherworldly mothership connection, this bold piece will send sparks up and down the music community to get those creative juices flowing. 

When DJ Shadow set out to prove "Why Hip-hop Sucks in '96" on 1996's "Endtroducing," he created a hallmark (albeit a bit overrated) hodge-podge that spoke volumes without uttering a word. While Shadow himself retreated to the shadows, often popping up in less successful collaborations, something amazing happened to hip-hop: It stopped sucking as much.

Sure, MTV was busy gorging itself on bombastic displays of opulence, violence and misogyny, but the underground was going through something of a second renaissance with astute, inventive and literate artists paving the path for the diverse array of output currently coming out of labels like Def Jux, 75 Ark, Priority, Anticon, Warp and Mush.

Hip-hop stars began taking compositional cues from electronic musicians. The discovery - still lost on most rock musicians - that hip-hop could be equally progressive and far less alienating than the dance floor fetishists drooling over the latest technology was a revolutionary step forward.

Thanks in part to the mainstream media's diverted attention to thugs and pimps, hip-hop stars were allowed to embrace challenging new music. Examples range from Outkast's enchantment with Aphex Twin to cLOUDDEAD's enchantment with Boards of Canada (downloaders alert: Boards of Canada recently remixed cLOUDDEAD's "Dead Dogs Two"). The experimental trio's first album was a collection of six 10" records that focused on the pastoral soundscapes whose synth washes brought a much-needed utopian aesthetic to the often overly gritty terrain of modern hip-hop.

With Doseone's nasal voice, the scattershot slam verses, unusual samples, and abstract tonal expressionism, cLOUDDEAD had allowed hip-hop to not only permanently come off the streets and into a floating dreamworld, but removed the literal interpretation of "hip" as a prerequisite to maintaining a superficial cool at all times. cLOUDDEAD's is too smart to be only touted as cool.

After a hiatus doing a barrage of touring, solo work and appearing alongside Themselves, Reaching Quiet, Aesop Rock, Boom Bip and various others, cLOUDDEAD are back with all the essential stated elements in place. Opening with a fake accent and ending with a secret track of why? Intentionally electrocuting himself under a running faucet, cLOUDDEAD's much-awaited follow-up does throw in everything, even the kitchen sink.

It's hardly a disjointed, unlistenable affair though. The guiding principle of the album is a keen, almost Beatle-esque grasp of melody that makes the aptly named ten-track album "Ten" such a rare and enjoyable feast for the ears. Grating guitars collide with warm pads so vivacious and feathery that they make one wonder about the irony lying behind the band's name. These little fluffy clouds are far from dead, though the issue of mortality does arise at various points throughout the album.

It's hard to know what to make of these songs thematically outside the unifying concept that there are 10 of them. Certain words and concepts reappear throughout "Ten" like the swarming of ants, the prevalence of guns, and the beauty of ugliness of dead dogs, but it's hard to establish a communicative coalescence in the wryly cynical, vaguely political verses.

While the liner notes admit that some song's verses were written without express knowledge of the other stanzas, cLOUDDEAD would seem to be working in the realm of dada and surrealism without the obligatory nihilism and Freudian overtones. What else are we to make of verses like "I'm sick of keen eyed teens keying/ car doors in the middle of the night/ They won't believe their donning dangling carrot cams?"

There's a sense that the hyperbolic realism may be gearing the listener in some kind of direction on songs like "Son of a Gun" where the three vocalists chant "The makers of guns will never go hungry/ may there children play murder weapons since stick." Regardless, unless you feel like concentrating a researched thesis on the lyrics, it will take a fiercely focused listen to decode the multitude of cryptic messages that cLOUDDEAD litter 'Ten' with.

The reason then that cLOUDDEAD's drip-hop should be designated as music for the advancement of hip-hop (as an Anticon comp recently boisterously boasted) lies in the fact that their mini indie symphonies transform the preposterously long legacy of gentrified 4/4 beats into a schizophrenic game of Candyland and bring Four Tet to a brand new audience.

The second track begins with an absurdly short loop of a skipping record, which instantly sounds like there's no way that Doseone and company could ever rap their way out of this one. When they do, a burst of analogue synth seems to break the tension, only to lead the track into even more elliptical patterns filled with psychedelic flute bridges straight off of Manitoba's "Up in Flames." You know you are in for a challenging album. The song proceeds to erupt into child-like sing-along and blissfully cooing with vocal riffs on empty space grafted to a Casio tone line and wonderfully melds into the next track by funkdafying the skipping turntable needle into a Mid-eastern-tinged groove.

"Rifle Eyes" opens with a clever play on the British sensation of Hi-NRG and then proceeds to pop off caps as dramatic hints, but never lets them overpower the mournful acoustic guitars and whimsical backwards-masked strings. "3 Twenty" may be the first hip-hop track to ever acknowledge the influence of Flying Saucer Attack. "Dead Dogs Two" laments with funeral organ about the difficulty in seeing decaying road kill "under a sky so blue."

There's a myriad of other surprising elements that cLOUDDEAD pull from their bag of tricks on "Ten." To list them here would detract from the deranged magic that a first listen will surely bring to new fans. It'd be redundant to pun on how the album ranks, but rarely do I get enthusiastic enough to disregard my own urge to keep a hipster cool. This album is truly a ten.


Mush Records