A collaborative project featuring Justin Vernon, Astronautalis, S. Carey, and Ryan Olson was teased back in 2012 during its creative stages. It recently arrived in gilded Ed Hardy font as De Oro, the debut record under the name Jason Feathers.
The gathering of musicians comes with a string of alter-egos -- Creflo a.k.a. Jason Feathers (Astronautalis), Ephasis (Vernon), Toothpick (Carey), and _______ (Olson) -- and embellished back stories. Each player gets his own invented persona, which serves to represent the sounds reflected on the record. "OK, this ain't no college album, playboy," Creflo says at one point. "This is a professional album."
This week, De Oro -- which means "gold" in Spanish -- was made available as a streamable preview via Pitchfork. Here are our initial thoughts.
The secret Justin Vernon and Astronautalis project has emerged
Astronautalis as Creflo ("a red-chested god-bassed Southern rapper in a fancy white suit," according to the press release) occupies the cover of the album De Oro. His face is hidden in shadows with only gold grills and chains in focus in such a way that his skin color is a mystery.
There's not a lot present in the raps that reflect what one usually thinks of upon hearing the term "Southern rapper," other than perhaps the pitched-down vocals. The lyrics are far more backwater bluesman than Bun B. There are plenty of signifiers throughout in the images referenced -- gold mines, creeks, Old Bay seasoning, etc. -- but in keeping with Astro's solo work, it pulls far more from literary than hip-hop tropes in its writing.
Lines like "God willing and the creek don't rise" and "Wash the Earth and start anew" are not standard rap fare, and the Southern-ness is far more of the knock-down, drag-out then draped-up and dripped-out variety. And much like his solo work, the Jason Feathers project works better if you don't think of it as rap, or any genre in particular for that matter.
Astronautalis warned this would not be an Astronautalis record, a Bon Iver record, or even a combination of both; it's an experimental amalgam of ideas that sounds like a patchwork of concepts, and whether the ideas land depends on the listener's patience with songs that are structurally loose and somewhat choppy.
The signature styles of everyone involved are evident even as the costumes change, but Ryan Olson's directorial touch is especially so. The milieu is wholly different, but De Oro has similar movement to it as other Olson projects, particularly Gayngs' Related and Marijuana Deathsquads' Tamper.Disable.Destroy.
Those records were tightly confined collections of concepts culled from multiple sources, and tended to jump between them somewhat chaotically with enough production control to still be considered songs. De Oro might've been a more easily digestible record had it been simply Astronautalis raps and Bon Iver hooks; instead it's a hodgepodge of picked-apart freestyles, twangy guitar licks, pounding drum parts, and melodic reverberated singing.
It mostly works considering how cobbled together it seems, but Olson is the master cobbler. The driving sound of "Young as Fuck" and "Canary in a Gold Mine" are the best examples of what the mixture of the four distinct approaches sound like in tandem, though "Sacred Math" and "Cyclone" are probably the album's best songs. These are the most stripped-down of the bunch, and the album's cinematic moodiness is used to its best effect.
"Sacred Math" begins with a menacing rundown of a series of spring breaks past, specifically referencing Spring Breakers at one point to incorporate the film's sinister aura. The seedy bar jukebox vibe and gospel elements work better as the tone gets more ambient and eerie.
Next: The fabricated back story...
All of the artists here carry the notions of narrative and mystique in their branding, and their ties to the American South and heartland play big roles in their music. Jason Feathers sees its members taking on personas where these attributes are amplified, becoming burlesques of themselves in presentation.
Astronautalis as an older Riff Raff in a country-western phase is a few life and fashion choices away from his actual bio, and his in-character raps reflect the kind of historical fiction territory he's tread in the past. The album is an intriguing listen to see how these pieces all fit together after being amplified through the imaginative scenarios described in the press release.
But as with any game of dress-up, it's likely they're enjoying the experience even more than we are.
Read the press release featuring the group's phony bio below:
The album is now available for pre-order and will be released on 8/19 through Totally Gross National Product.
Just outside of Flori-bama there is an under-disclosed building frequented by a handful of outlaws and in-laws, a place where questions don't get answered and dreams don't usually come true, where passers-thru can find like-minded chartless characters to intermingle with; this place is known as De Oro. One evening Jason Feathers, a.k.a. Creflo, a red-chested god-bassed Southern rapper in a fancy white suit, found himself in an after-bar-impromptu-musical-round-up. There, he tangled with two flashily-clad cronies, one called Toothpick, a drummer-hype-piano-man all in one, and the other a heavily-seasoned guitar-crooning lost-cowboy that went by Ephasis. The house engineer that night, a white-haired man with ghostly features that the locals all called Opacity, captured all that went down. Later there was ________, who put it all together and played "bass" amongst sequenced plugs and wires.
De Oro is the record of this event and those that followed.
Who knows how long ago, but also probably pretty recently, Jason Feathers came to be. Four seedy characters happened to be in the right place at the right time: in the thickest of humidity one July evening, in a bar where Florida meets Alabama.
I guess you could say that Jason Feathers is the name of the "band," but it's also the alias that the M.C. Creflo chose for himself after the fact, going about as any washed-up and out-of-touch rapper would: proclaiming himself "Jason," "Jason Feathers" or simply "Feathers" as a means of reinventing and reigniting his failed career in hip-hop in this post digital-age (I bet if we dug hard enough we could find the old Creflo stuff - someone out there's gotta still have a copy on 'em that they picked up at one of his many shows at the Yacht Club way back). So it was Creflo who "formed" the group, given his past and subtle dapples in the music biz. But it never would have seen the light of day if not for the other three and their shared and coincidental love of rhinestones.
That fateful night, Toothpick, a former high school geometry teacher gone "bad," was the house band, showing off his dueling drum and piano skills while signin' so fiercely you couldn't help but listen. He played some friendly covers but mostly he cursed on the mic, experimenting with his own weird brand of melodic hype.
It began simply enough - Creflo, sparked by inspiration from watching Toothpick's antics, forced his way onto the stage. What should have been an invitation to be shunned took a swift turn for the best and the pair combined to form a melodious sound with sick rhymes and tricked out piano lines.
Propped up at the bar, Ephasis was merely an onlooker. Maybe he was feeling nostalgic for the spotlight, maybe he was just bored, either way it wasn't long before he too was up on stage with the others strummin' the guitar he always kept in the back room.
Not much is known of Ephasis, other than his love of whiskey and pills. He frequented this spot before lending his guitar and voice that night, but he only returned a few times after and then never again. While his whereabouts are still unknown, a few photos have surfaced since his sudden disappearance. Shrouded in sunglasses, in the shadow of his cowboy hat and perched on his favorite bar stool, the few who knew him all agree: Yes, that's Ephasis.
And then there was __________, who - as he does - discovered Creflo and the raw tracks that would eventually become the Feathers debut. After much careful precision and Opacity in piecing the tapes together, there emerged De Oro, which were the only words written on all of the tapes - in black ink on strips of dirty hockey tape. It can only be assumed that Creflo must have scribbled the words to serve as a working title for the sessions in the hopes that one day this music would be discovered and all would once again consider him, well ... Gold.
You see, way back (we're talkin' '98 thru '01), Creflo was well known locally down south. He's now washed-up and out-of-touch. Since his rappin' days, he's gotten into some dark black market shit but has always carried that little torch of local fame he got with him, which kind of diluted his mind. He's not quite one of those dudes you see rapping to himself loudly on the sidewalk, but he's close. He's still got some cool left in him.
_______ somehow discovered Creflo and his little bit of cool and decided he had something. Whether the lure of that magical night at the bar down south is true or not, _____ saw something in Cref and helped him refine it. He's now nurturing him - as he does - to be a star. Creflo's here, he's around and loving every minute of this new found attention he's getting as Mr. Jason Feathers.
As for the others...
Toothpick's hanging out now that something real is happening. Creflo likes Tooth alright but knows to be careful around him; he's a tornado if pushed the wrong way. Toothpick left the Yacht Club and followed Creflo north to make a go at it so he wouldn't have to go back to crunching numbers in a classroom. He's taking names and working as a Sauce Master at a divvy Chinese restaurant to get by while waiting for the big roll out.
Ephasis is nowhere to be found but may soon emerge after the shit hits the fan, as he's always had that sort of lonely travelin' blues man thing about him. He could care less about fame but can't help singin' in front of a crowd that'll listen. This new found exposure he's about to receive with his pals here just may provoke more opportunity for his own songs to be heard. I guess we'll see...
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS
53 things you might not know about Prince
73 things you might not know about Bob Dylan
Brother Ali: My fans are kicking the sh*t out of me over Trayvon Martin
Here's why we didn't sign the Foo Fighters photo waiver
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list