Hip-hop and violins — those that haven’t been sampled or scratched in — now have a new chapter in their short history together. Dan the Automator and his new collaborator Emily Wells, an Amarillo-born singer-songwriter, are both trained violinists who’ve been combining street beats, classical chops and conventional song structures either on their own or, in Dan’s case, with Handsome Boy Modeling School, Gorillaz and other genre-bending studio projects. With turntable wizardry from kindred soul Kid Koala and background vocals from Oakland MC Lateef the Truthspeaker, the pair align forces on an album that recalls trip-hop’s melodramatic ’90s heyday via Portishead and DJ Shadow.
It’s hard — particularly at first — not to hear Wells’s raspy, singsong delivery and not think of Macy Gray, even if her lyrics detailing the lives of losers and their equally dysfunctional lovers do boast their own gritty appeal. But there’s so much rich, undulating stuff going on behind her that the instrumentation ultimately wins this Pillowfight: Gothic organ riffs, funky cold machine beats, syncopated live percussion, Spaghetti Western guitars, brass horn blasts and several varieties of strings all comingle in a smooth and savvy collision of low and high art. Like all trip-hop joints, Pillowfight is heavy on mid-tempo languor and shadowy ambiance, and that’s as it should be. Although it may not have much to do with the rest of the disc, album highlight “Get Down” circumvents both of those attributes to evoke the ’90s rock-funk jams of Luscious Jackson. In doing so, it does exactly what it commands.