Dawn Richard & Spencer Zahn
If you’d told me 15 years ago that a member of Danity Kane and/or Diddy – Dirty Money was set to become one of modern music’s most abstract, genre-jumbling creators, I would have laughed in your face. Yet that’s just what’s happened as Dawn Richard takes what was once Janelle Monáe’s model for weird, space-age, Prince-ly R&B and rams it through a wood chipper of avant-garde pop, jazzy electronica, and New Orleans’ gumboed punk-funk. If Richard were to do polka at this point in her career, that too would seem of a piece with all that she’s accomplished with previous solo albums such as last year’s Second Line.
Now in full maximal minimalistic collaboration with composer/producer/instrumentalist Spencer Zahn, Richard lets her experimental freak flag fly at full, windy mast. Not unlike Perfume Genius’ recent album Ugly Season and its dedication to choreographic dance and movement, Pigments—at its most revolutionary—courses through one’s evolution of self-expression while pursuing the tenderness of community. Some of the new album’s quieter, more atmospheric moments (I say “moments” because, in theory, Pigments is one composition with multiple chapters and movements all led by Richard’s dry, unprocessed vocals) are more reflective of an emotional common ground, as heard on “Sienna.”
Dig deeper and you’ll find that, like Second Line, the ties to Orleans Parish’s community in particular is the fluid that greases these gears, one that acts like a bloodline through the muddy EDM and squirrely, skittering rhythms of Pigments as Richard uses the classicism that was part of her childhood as it explodes operatically onto tracks such as the sweeping, wide-berth synth-jam “Cerulean.”
Beyond such an inorganic sweep between producer and vocalist, there’s a drafty, spacey feel brought about by something like their own brand of chamber orchestration, with Richard and Zahn’s contributors to Pigment adding cello, clarinet, samplers, viola, flute, violin, and saxophone in a manner that would make the Philip Glass ensemble of Einstein on the Beach fame proud. Whatever this is, Pigments is a rousing, experimental triumph.