So, imagine you’re Jimmy Tamborello. You received a wave of critical praise with your debut record as DNTEL, Life is Full of Possibilities. Then you collaborate with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard via the U.S. Postal Service, naming your project after said institution and being met with even more glowing reviews. Then you come to learn that you’ve made one of the highest grossing records in Sub Pop’s history and landed your share of soundtrack and TV appearances. You returned electro and indie cred to Los Angeles and you’ve become a household name. So what do you do next? A hip-hop record, apparently.
Jimmy Tamborello’s new project, Headset, is the California knob-turner’s outlet for his hip-hop jones. Headset’s debut Spacesettings, though produced by the Postal worker, bears almost no resemblance to his work as DNTEL or in The Postal Service. Rather, it is, as stated before, purely hip-hop. Tamborello, himself, doesn’t MC any tracks (though that might be worth hearing), but rather employs the help of guests such as Nobody, Beans and Subtitle.
The first two tracks on the album don’t give it as strong of an intro as an album such as this would require. “Then Again” and “Back Before” are both atmospheric, spacey tracks that contain a minimum of hooks and tend to meander a bit. Though, track 3, the instrumental “Outward Sound,” is much more intriguing. With the help of Daedelus, Tamborello creates a bizarre jazzy vibe, sounding like a less operatic DJ Shadow. “Grasping Claw (The Beginning)” follows a similar path, venturing into eerie soundscapes, though this song actually features vocals, albeit ones that tend to blend in, leaving one to believe that the song actually is instrumental.
“Grasping Claw” picks up after its predecessor creates a fitting intro, though the intro is actually more intriguing. Not every MC that Tamborello chose for this project works, and Sach and Lady Dragon are no Mos Def and Talib Kweli. But then again, they aren’t Puff Daddy or Mase either, so I can’t complain too much. “Dunno” is more intriguing, however, as it is another instrumental track, revolving around a descending bass drone and quirky electronic sounds. It’s one of the few tracks that actually sounds like DNTEL doing hip-hop, rather than a standard hip-hop song with Tamborello’s name stamped on it.
Beans provides a standout performance on the laid-back “Jaw Modulation,” easily one of the best tracks on the album with its brushed drum beats and distorted vocal effects. It’s simple, but catchy, which is an element that a few of the earlier tracks on the album were missing. Subtitle’s performance on “Breath Contrails” is adequately bizarre, pulling off a high-speed delivery that recalls Gift of Gab on amphetamines. As Tamborello brings the album to a close, he attempts stutter-step lite jazz breaks on “Previously Smooth Sophistication” and suspenseful minor-key film scoring in “Sound of a Squint.” Each one stands out, particularly the latter, as instrumentals seem to be Tamborello’s strong suit.
Spacesettings has its share of mis-steps, but isn’t without its share of strengths as well. Though the vocal tracks are mostly inferior to Tamborello’s moody instrumentals, they occasionally work, and when they do, they warrant a spot on your next crunked-out party mix. Headset is an ambitious project for someone whose recorded history contains no hip-hop, but for a first-timer, Tamborello isn’t half bad. But only time will tell if it stands up to David Hasselhoff’s collaboration with Ice-T.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.