Quick, name one thing about Australian hip hop. No? Nothing? You're probably not alone. As a newbie to that whole continent's output myself, I went into Urthboy's 2004 with a healthy sense of trepidation. The artwork on the project is, like the title, knowingly quirky, both fresh and geeky, and I thought there seemed about an equal chance of being either refreshed and surprised, or else having my cynical suspicions confirmed after being confronted with yet another bo-ho white boy trying to get down.
I'm happy to report that the former scenario is a much more accurate description of the listening experience for "Distant Sense," an album that is both veteran-assured and newbie-clean, manned by an MC with a sure voice of reason. And whether you agree with him or not on that last point is hardly his problem at all.
Most importantly, Urthboy (as a veteran and forerunner in the late-90s to present-day Australian scene) knows who to collaborate with to get the sound structures and sonic templates he wants. With help from a handful of friends, he surrounds his voice with bouncy and bright sounds, both crisp and organic, that expose his origins in live instrument rap bands. Punches of live-ass horns can be found occasionally, but crate digging is left to a minimum here.
Ultimately, what the production lacks in innate soul and funkiness, it makes up for in consistency of tone (seriously, a unified palette should not be underrated) and satisfying synthesizer melodies married to solid drum and bass structures.
Urthboy possesses a healthy vocal command, with a "British" accent that succeeds not by being sweet and lilting like Rick the Ruler, but cutting and harsh. While geezers might have trouble deciphering the thick accent, shorties raised on Bone's tongue-twisters, E double E's mush mouth and Juve's southern slang should have no problems. He lyrically holds his own, but runs into a few snags with his content, with ranges from stream-of-consciousness narratives about a day in his life (mostly satisfying) to heavy-handed sermonizing about politics and how one should cherish life (mostly annoying).
Urthboy's at his best when just getting ill on loose jams a la early Eminem, with a tone both flippant and clever, stubbornly enigmatic despite his pissy fuck-you attitude. What's the word they use…cheeky?
Thematically the album mostly hits a satisfying note, such as on the Kafka-esque title track, where the current sociopolitical landscape is captured in all its absurdity. Urthboy shows a ton of potential as well as a healthy dose of fruition on "Distant Sense," only occasionally losing favor by taking his know-it-all assuredness too far (as on the closer "The Last Chance," where he exhorts us to cherish every moment of life cuz it might be our last—um, thanks for the PSA.)
But if you can dig a fresh voice and groove to some tight and bright hip hop music, give him a shot. I know I'll be waiting anxiously for his newest joint coming later this year, and I'm glad to have gained knowledge of at least one Australian cat doing his thing. You'd be wise to do the same.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: May 29, 2007