Brilliant corners

Pub date May 16, 2006
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

› In the last year of the 20th century, Kodwo Eshun charted musical forms of Afrofuturism in the book More Brilliant than the Sun. Six years into the 21st century, I wonder what Eshun would think of Chelonis R. Jones.

"Camera! Lights! Action!" The words at the very beginning of Jones’s debut Dislocated Genius herald an ambivalent performance. "I didn’t want to burn it now, burn cork to dance and sing," he soon recites with lack of affect over a marching beat. The detached attitude and robotic melody outdo Pete Shelley’s "Homosapien." In the company of this lyric, and Jones’s cover painting for Dislocated Genius, the first utterance in the next song "Life is hardly ever fair," probably sung by New YorktoEurope voyager Jones, but treated to sound like a sample from an old record player arrives with vital irony.

The eight-minute track that follows, "Middle Finger Music," moves through menaced verses and curses over the type of automaton beat that Kraftwerk would factory stamp with approval before being overtaken by abstract daydreams and nightmares. Crying gulls and King Tubbylike dub motifs flicker through the song’s lonely, vast inner and outer space as Jones near-whispers the titular words to himself, his voice multitracked into a self-harassing chorus. Here, and on the gloomily humorous next song, "Vultures" (sample lines: "They circle-dive inside my dome … They never leave my ass alone"), paranoia pervades the atmosphere, which Jones renders like the imaginative painter he happens to be when he isn’t making music.

As a writer and singer, Jones possesses many voices, and if on "Middle Finger Music" he both listens to them and claims they’ll lead him to his doom, there and elsewhere on Dislocated Genius they yield extraordinary results. This recording’s avant-reaches have bewildered some club music writers who know of Jones strictly as the name behind a pair of sublime and relatively straightforward if poetic soulful house-inflected singles, "I Don’t Know" and "One and One." On those tracks (as well as another mathematics-of-love number, "49 Percent," recorded with Röyksopp), Jones’s voice trembles and swoons like that of Off the Wallera Michael Jackson that is, when he isn’t more freely vamping like a diva. Describing a movie-ready tearful good-bye by train tracks, "I Don’t Know”’s vocal outdoes some of the sensational male testifying of early Chicago house: Jones laughs bitterly to himself and seems to cradle his own pain while reaching deep into his chest for low notes as he feels a that word again "burn" in describing his crushed passion. He can also do butch swagger witness the quarrelsome and smart (rather than daft) punk of "L.A. Mattress."

Jones’s talent is exciting because it reaches from pop melody to stranger realms; time and time again, the unique perspective of his songs dissolves into embattled technological chatter. The chorus of "The Hair" is as memorable as the one to Wire’s "I Am the Fly," and even more layered in its critique of a certain greed, and yet it’s sung in a tone that’s a sly update on Smokey Robinson. In More Brilliant than the Sun, Eshun explored "Myth Science" through written or typed words; Jones’s "Mythologies (Myths I and II)" does so in sound, with skepticism his voice is processed in a way that brings the sweet but stinging theoretical distance of Scritti Politti’s honeybee R&B to mind. A motif from "Mythologies" returns in "Deer in the Headlights," further proving the formidable post-Baldwin, post-Basquiat methods within his fractured madness.

By the end of Dislocated Genius, as "Debaser" forms an abstract contemporary take on the stripped-down funk of very early Prince, Jones has made it clear that blackface is only the surface and the start of a defiant creative imagination just as comfortable being mauve, olive green, or "ho-ish pink." In the final minutes of this extraordinary album, he’s turned Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat into a love song dedicated to someone who "defecate(s) words like Molly Bloom," and managed to make the vocal melody float like a spectral ship on an ocean at night.

He may be a "laughingstock since the age of 13," but this self-described "gaudy cross of Streisand and Curtis Mayfield" is still traveling. Where is he headed next? A place I’d like to hear. SFBG