When Lil B stepped away from the Pack, the Bay Area post-hyphy pop-rap group, and became a mantra-chanting internet enigma, he got a lot of his gravitas from Clams Casino, the mysterious producer who supplied him with dazed, gluey beats — Kanye West/Just Blaze-style sped-up soul samples, transformed into woozy, drifting fantasias of sound. In 2011, my friend Ryan Dombal tracked down this figure who’d fascinated so many of us, and he learned that Clams Casino was just some guy, which somehow made him more interesting. He was Mike Volpe, a hospital intern and physical therapy student in his early twenties who just looked at music as some weird hobby. He crafted tracks by seeking out samples based entirely on mood: “To find things to sample, I used to just type a random word — like ‘blue’ or ‘cold’ — into LimeWire or BearShare and download the first 10 results. I had no idea who the artists were or anything.” He’d never met Lil B. He’d bought tickets to one of Lil B’s New York shows, but he’d left early because his friends couldn’t get in. It hadn’t even occurred to him to get on the guest list.
Five years later, Clams remains nearly as mysterious, even though he’s got a major label deal and an album full of guest stars; even though we know what he looks like. Even though Clams is no longer building tracks out of randomly downloaded songs, his music still has that feeling of displacement, of being unmoored. The astral drift of his sound is closer to, say, Boards Of Canada than it is to just about any big-name rap producer. Clams’ star really started to rise when he compiled the instrumental versions of the tracks he’d done with rappers like Lil B onto his Instrumental mixtapes; it turned out that their dazed, broken beauty tended to come through more cleanly when it didn’t have Lil B chanting random phrases over it. But on 32 Levels, his major-label debut, Clams has progressed into a great producer of songs, a real collaborator. And he’s done it without losing the dizzy unreality of his music. It’s quite a trick.
Because Clams is a producer, and because he’s brought in different guests on just about every song, 32 Levels resonates more as a compilation than as an actual cohesive statement. But while Clams may not project an artistic voice, he does take care to show us how vivid and dextrous his sound is. The structure here is important. The first half of the album is straight-up rap, Clams linking up again with some of his favorite collaborators. Lil B is the album’s dominant voice and spirit animal; he raps on three songs and plays hypeman on a fourth. But the Lil B we hear on these songs is different from the one we’ve heard on countless Clams tracks in the past. Clams and Lil B, for the first time, recorded these songs together, assembling them in the same room. And while Lil B usually freestyles expansively, he’s actually writing here, attempting to structure his tracks and ride beats. The effect is revelatory. Even when B is declaiming vague, loose imagery — “Shout out to France, shout out to Japan / Everywhere I go, man, they do the rain dance” — he’s delivering it in quick, disciplined verses, holding his own alongside more conventional and focused rappers like A$AP Rocky and Vince Staples.
And Clams tracks, even at their most diffuse, still have a serious low-end. Clams created a lot of his own tracks here, rather than sampling. He took field recordings — that has to be a bird chirping on the Staples collab “All Nite” — and he played his own drums, then sampled those drums. And while gasping beauty has always been Clams’ calling card, this time around, I get more of an impression that he’s built the songs with the rappers in mind, the way great rap producers always do. “Witness” sounds like some mutated version of East Coast boom-bap. “All Nite” has some skittery Californian energy. “Be Somebody” sounds like clouds gathering, but it also has a rhythmic strut that gives Rocky and Lil B — two rappers did not get along a few years ago — room to sound glamorous.
But the second half of the album is where it really becomes something special. There are no rappers on the second half of the LP; Clams is working with singers here instead. And he can do some things with some singers. This isn’t exactly new information; Clams has done impressive work with people like the Weeknd and Blood Orange in the past. But it’s still striking to hear a few of these songs in a row, all pushing that sound in different directions. For instance: You can make an honest-to-god pop song out of a Clams Casino beat, something I never would’ve expected. Mikky Ekko — whom I only know because he’s the guy who sang that one verse on Rihanna’s “Stay” — co-produced “Into The Fire,” and he pushes that sound toward beautiful ’80s new-romantic catharsis. “Back To You,” with its whispery vocal from Wet singer Kelly Zutrau, sounds like a UK garage track that’s drowning in honey. On “A Breath Away,” Clams meets the poised, sharp, futuristic R&B singer Kelela exactly where she lives; I’d love to hear these two together more.
But the single most evocative track on a very evocative album is “Ghost In A Kiss,” with the Future Islands singer Samuel T. Herring. Over some echoing piano plinks and howling-wind synths and truly titanic drums, Herring crawls deep within his own craggy baritone, turning it into some kind of mystic incantation. Herring has a whole lot more range, a lot more capacity for melody, than what we hear on “Ghost In A Kiss.” But he finds the right mood for the song, the right sensibility. And since mood is Clams Casino’s great gift, he’s perfect for it. On that track, and all the others here, Clams seems to be showing us what he can do, how far his sound can go. Somehow, he covers vast distances on 32 Levels without ever quite venturing outside his comfort zone. Imagine what’ll happen when he pushes himself even further.
32 Levels is out 7/15 on Columbia.
Other notable albums out this week:
• Chicago rap prospect Dreezy’s eagerly anticipated debut No Hard Feelings.
• Heaven For Real’s synth-addled lo-fi punker Kill Your Memory.
• Jherek Bischoff’s chamber-popper Cistern.
• Fialta’s synthy pop debut Shadow Of A Drought.
• GL’s funky new wave debut Touch.
• Amanda and Jack Palmer’s family affair You Got Me Singing.
• Seedna’s atmospheric black metaller Forlorn.
• Omar Rodríguez-López’s Sworn Virgins, the first of his 12-LP series.
• The probably-anticipated-by-somebody soundtrack to the new Ghostbusters.
• ABRA’s Princess EP.
• No Joy’s Drool Sucker EP.
• angelic milk’s teenage movie soundtrack EP.
• Blu & Nottz’s Titans In The Flesh EP.
• Darkstar’s Made To Measure EP.
• Charlotte Cardin’s Big Boy EP.
• Year Of Glad’s I Don’t Know Where I Am Either EP.