Album Review

Atmosphere: The Family Sign

Rhymesayers Entertainment 2011

by Andrew C Schlett

The fact is not lost upon me, as a totally unknown music writer, that when some particular act becomes big, it is the custom of many rock journalists to say that they were in on it from the beginning, that they remember back when that particular somebody was small-time and only a select few people, that fortunate journalist included, were in on the early magic.  I will claim no such thing in this review, or in this case!  The first thing I want to make clear is that up until until a month ago, I had never heard of Atmosphere.  Not at any time had that name crossed my path.  We were listening to some music at work a few weeks back and I said “Hey, what is this?  It sounds freakin’ good, dude!”  My co-worker told me that it was the new disc by Atmosphere.  My response?  “What the hell is Atmosphere?”  Since that first exposure, though, Atmosphere has grown rather large in my musical landscape.  Slug, Ant and the boyz recently played a sold-out show at the Fox Theater in Boulder, CO, and a review of that concert from the Boulder Weekly was forwarded to me by the same co-worker who had introduced me to this music.  It is from this well written review, by a writer who seems to know his topic thoroughly, that I have learned much about this artist, and his past; what a solid and established name he really has.  Slug is a man of high stature, impeccable cred, and long tenure in the rap community!  Little did I know, non-rap-guy that I am.

At this time, then, I would like to set aside all the background information that I have gained and review this disc from the perspective of one who is new to these sounds.  As one who, like myself up until just lately, does not know anything whatsoever about Atmosphere, but who has been handed this disc and was asked to give his opinion of it.  That is what I do for Rivethead Magazine, after all, give my thoughts on music.  Ain’t life nice these days?

On the whole, I have to say that I like this disc for a variety of reasons, but there are also aspects to it that I find somewhat unpleasant.  On the positive side, the music that Atmosphere produces is unlike anything I have ever heard before.  Ant’s arrangements and the wide-ranging choices of unusual instruments that he uses, the unique blending of beats, rhythms, and sounds, produce something that approaches the output of a musical genius.  If anyone else out there is doing anything like this, I sure haven’t heard of it!  With this, Slug’s smooth vocal stylings and tightly constructed raps flow pleasantly from the ear to the brain.  The intensity of emotional involvement in his music is obvious, but so too is the disturbed nature of his scarred-by-life soul.  Artistic creation springs from the soul of all musicians, I know, but there is an undeniable darkness to this album that sometimes steps to the forefront, which is why a couple of the songs are tough to listen to.  Slug’s pain, brilliantly and artfully expressed though it may be, is a heavy cross for the casual listener to bear.  That is why I must arrive at a 2-1 split decision on this disc.  The songs that I like are awesome, but there are one or two tracks that I really have to skip over when I’m driving down the road cranking it up in my truck.

There are a total of 14 songs on The Family Sign, and if I were to take each of them case-by-case, this review would end up being like 60,000 words long.  That would be both imprudent and unnecessary.  I would, however, like to spotlight some of the songs presented here, and offer these as representative samples of the album as a whole.

Let’s begin with the songs that I like, and the first of these is track one on the disc, titled ‘My Key’.  This is the sound that caught my attention some weeks ago.  It starts out quiet, then a very strong guitar riff come in, then rhythm, and for the initial two minutes of this song it’s nothing but this totally trippy instrumental until Slug kicks in the lyrics, kind of unexpectedly in fact, and these opening words set the tone, the key if you will, for the entire family theme to this record.  “I watched the sunset, I saw the snow fall, I stole paint to write your name on the stone wall. / We made some babies, we made some messes too, tryin’ to do our best to push all of the blessings through.”   This sounds not unlike the situation of almost everybody in the world, except for the graffiti part.  He then speaks of life itself and his own personal need for a vindication of the life he has lived, again a message that conveys well and reaches many.  He cites love, faith, and artistic self-expression as motives for happiness and rejoicing, which they very well are.  And family, to Slug, is much more than blood relations.  “Now close your eyes and crack a smile if you know me / While I spit into the sky cause I miss the little homie!”  At first I was puzzled.  Sorry, bro, I don’t know you.  Or your little homie.  Then I realized it doesn’t matter because we all have a little homie or two whom we have lost, and miss.  Once again Atmosphere hits on a level that is much deeper than simply musical, and then the trippy guitar drops back in as if to seal the point.  Nicely done! 

‘Just For Show’, the fourth track, touches on the basic difficulty in most troubled relationships: the divergent nature of natural human growth and change.  “Frustration?  You want some separation? / You want no placement within this mess that I’m makin? / I’m painfully aware of my mistakes, and maybe you should break, and escape from this situation. / Or take a little taste of the blame.”  Then he astutely points out, “you don’t really want, you don’t really want me to go, no you don’t that’s just for show.”  All of this is lain over music that almost bounces as it flows along, carrying the listener most happily down this little dis-trip with the band. 

Right after that comes ‘She’s Enough’.  This song, which I can imagine being played in dance clubs all over, highlights commitment and the extremes one would be willing to go to in the service of one’s woman.  Again, this album is written, recorded, and performed from a very male point of view, within the structure of life and family, but women should not feel put off or slighted by this perspective.  “If she want it,” he says, “I’m gonna give it up.  If she’s runnin low, I’m gonna fill her cup.  If it spill, chill, Imma clean it up.  I’ll be right here cause she’s enough. / If she needed the money, I would stick you up.  If she’s getting bored I’d do some different stuff….”  There is love within the soul of Slug, no doubt, and love for the woman about whom this song was written, difficult though she may sometimes be.  That in itself makes this music real-life, and accessible to those who would normally not be in tune with rap, or with Atmosphere.

A great many of the songs on this disc are of the slower, mellower style.  There is an almost “easy listening” feel to much of this album, and a fine example of this is ‘Who I’ll Never Be’.  Over a fine, folksy acoustic melody, Slug tells of living in a thin-walled apartment and overhearing the woman who lives next door writing songs on her guitar.  The entire song is acoustic, and flows like something the Commodores might have put out back in their day.  ‘Something So’, the thirteenth track, is another easy song to listen to, as it combines smooth rap with a very chill, laid-back beat.  This song kind of wraps up The Family Sign by bringing to full circle the entire familial theme of the album.  “We only get to live one time, but twice did my life stand in some sunshine. / I could lose eyesight, I could end up blind, but I drew my design inside the bloodline. / Years go by, memories combine, but y’all the only reason I would ever rewind. / …So everybody hold up the family sign.” 

Those who like their raps hard and fast, the sort of urban music that smacks you around a little, probably won’t get behind Atmoshpere’s groove.  For myself, I think this album is great!   Other songs are noteworthy as well for a variety of reasons.   A few of these are ‘I Don’t Need Brighter Days’, ‘Your Name Here’, and particularly ‘If You Can Save Me Now”.  In this song Slug describes the immediate aftermath of a car crash and what runs through his delirious mind as his life flashes by in the moments before he is pulled from the burning wreckage.  Indeed, if I could pull one lyric out of any one song to describe the mood of this entire album, I would pull it from here.  “You played your cards, had to stand strong, but it ain’t that hard to sing a sad song. /   We all got scars and broken parts, but most of the marks stay close to my heart.”   They really do, don’t they?

These marks that stay close to Slug’s heart really form the basis of disquietude that I have with this album.

 Otherwise, all good.