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All Grown Up

music_atmos1Indie-rap crew, Atmosphere, shows signs of evolution in sound and maturity
Upon listening to the latest effort from Minneapolis indie-rap crew Atmosphere, the word "maturity" comes to mind. And while it is arguably a fair adjective to describe the new album, The Family Sign, the group's front man, Sean Daley, doesn't like it.

"I make rap music, so 'mature' is kind of a bad word," says Daley, the MC better known as Slug. He prefers the word, “evolved.” "Ultimately, this is music for kids," he explains.

The group's sixth LP has passion, machismo and plenty of snark—only in a more grown-up kind of way. And Slug is fine with that.

"I can't freak the funk," he says. "I can't make another God Loves Ugly"—2002's ode to debauchery and depression, wherein Daley bemoans the loss of his fictional muse, Lucy Ford, while drowning in booze.

In fact, at this point in Daley's life (he's nearly 40), it wouldn't really make sense for him to drop another Sevens Travels, either. While it is a fantastic record packed with plenty of brilliantly caustic revelations on human nature, and while Slug manages to move beyond his lovesick lamentations, he only does so with the help of more drink and a steady stream of women who clearly mean nothing to him.

But, by the time Atmosphere released When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold in 2008, something had changed. Slug, as a narrator at least, had given up binge drinking and sleeping around, and Atmosphere producer, Anthony "Ant" Davis, had begun experimenting with live instrumentation—both in concert and in the studio.

Still, there were traces of the old Atmosphere in Lemons. The record made a stylistic break from prior albums, at least lyrically. On "Your Glasshouse," for example, Slug paints a morose, hellish picture of alcoholism—a far cry from "Shoes" off of Sevens Travels, which makes light of blacking out, then passing out, in a strange girl's apartment.

However, as Daley points out, the new musical direction wasn't as zeroed in on Lemons as it is on The Family Sign. While Davis' production embraced live instruments, Daley says, "Ant was still using instruments like samples"—chopping up bits of guitar here and piano there.

music_atmos2On The Family Sign, Daley's more “evolved" lyricism meets production that has managed to do something very difficult: make band-backed rap that doesn't sound tacky.

"Shit," Daley says. "If we did do that, it was accidental." Taking on a tone of modesty, the MC explains that he, Ant and the band (Atmosphere now has a permanent keyboardist and guitarist) simply attempted to capture the sounds from genres they love—like blues, country and rock—and stir it all up in a way that made sense to them.

"We were just trying to capture moods and vibes like we would if we took them off a record," he says.

The result is an album that straddles genres in a very compelling and innovative way, taking rap in a direction that is both new, but also familiar.

Daley is now a married man with children, and that is very apparent on The Family Sign. The track "She's Enough," is a oath of fidelity to his wife—a definite head-turner in a genre that prizes notches in the bedpost.

All the same, as Daley says, perhaps he is evolving more than he is maturing. There are definitely vestiges of the old Slug—the one who made God Loves Ugly—the one who is self-absorbed, cynical and perpetually drunk.

On "Bad Bad Daddy," one of The Family Sign's standouts, he croons about bringing a group of children to the bar. It's not a song about deadbeat dads, he explains. It's a metaphor for all the indie-rappers he has sired—all of whom have lost their way.

"It's me talking about all the other indie-rappers that came out of my balls," he says. "That song is basically saying that I gave birth to you, and I'm looking at you and I'm disappointed."

Now that is the Slug we all know, and sometimes love.


Atmosphere plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $41.75. For more information, call 420-5260.
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