May Day is an international holiday. Religious or secular, general strike or not, it heralds an end to the long cold nights of winter with a return to natural form — the radiance of life reborn. Fitting understates the symmetry of Master Of My Make-Believe, the sophomore release for Santi White (the former Santogold was altered to avoid conflicts with cult film Santo Gold’s Blood Circus). Exactly four years ago her self-titled debut catapulted her from Philly No Wave scenester to number two on Rolling Stone’s Singles of the Year list (“L.E.S. Artistes” as you might have guessed).
World music, not since Paul Simon’s Graceland, underwent a pop baptism of its own in 2008. Vampire Weekend somehow merges Ivy League twee-pop with Afro-rhythm. “Paper Planes” soared up the charts — it’s XL Recordings second best selling single ever. As far as Ms. White is concerned, the stars couldn’t have aligned at a more auspicious moment. So now, on this the first day of May, the whole world is eagerly watching, tweeting, ruminating over Master Of My Make-Believe, another long awaited memento of why we fell in love with Santigold; a fresh beat to greet the encroaching summer.
Researching the finer details of this latest effort, you would presume a tropical bass-and-kettle-drum aesthetic throughout. It was partially recorded in Jamaica. Nascent reggae producer Ricky Blaze provided many of the backing tracks for Santi’s throttling melodies. But then you realize opener “GO!” is co-produced by seven different auteurs, ranging from Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner to a lifer like Q-Tip. Mirroring the ominous regal overtones on the album cover, snarling syncopated synths and the metered bass drum wallop add considerable weight to her proclamations: “People want my power/And they want more station/Stormed my winter palace/But they couldn’t take it/All the way to Paris.” The duple march picks up. The melody and tempo quicken and thicken much like Blondie in her heyday. Karen O’s spliced up vocals are blended and garbled into a menagerie of madness that somehow maintains a musical sensibility. Not too many artists are capable of such control, such finesse.
The video for trailblazing single “Disparate Youth” should put to rest any assumptions that her big label status has supplanted her artistic integrity. She has a very clear image of what Santigold should be. Blaze’s prickly string synths mesh perfectly with a dormant gray bed awakened by rewound snowfall. “Dont look ahead there’s stormy weather” feels rebellious as hell when superseded by a killer distorted guitar hook — not to mention the blaise look she assumes while revving her beat-up bike down a jungle road leading to God knows where. Turns out she discovers a macabre youth militia that “wants a life worth fighting for.” Distant echoes and subtle reverb make this realization all the more disturbing.
Greg Kurstin, the songwriter of The Bird and the Bee, brought his sonic mastery to bear on politically charged “The Keepers” and guitar ballad “God From The Machine.” Apparently, Kurstin filled different types of bottles with varying amounts of water. Each one produces a unique note that he then layered, stacked and matched with the melody itself, throwing in some marimba and taiko drums for good measure. “We’re the keepers/While we sleep in America/Our house is burning down/Our house is burning down” is filtered through a post-rock Siouxsie and the Banshees type of malaise that bolsters her statement even more than expected. The latter is by far the most spooky guitar-driven track presented before us. “You can make it alone” sounds like inner mantra to anyone who’s ever doubted the vision they laid out for themselves. With those thunderous snares behind you, no one’s going to want to get in your way.
TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek is behind one of the many sleeper hits hidden among the expected jewels. An initially frenetic disjunct rhythm hooks up with Santi’s melodic anchor on “Fame.” Bowie’s might have more staying power, but expect to hear this one mashed up, especially the head-nodding chorus breakbeat — not too dubbed out with just enough presence. Better have a serious system in the trunk to handle this beast.
Much like M.I.A., White hears sounds like a producer, not a traditional artist. “Everybody always asks me what music I listen to, but sometimes I don’t listen to a lot of music, because I can’t turn off this mechanism in my head that breaks down sounds. Sometimes you’ll like get in a car, and someone will ask if you want the radio on and you’ll be like, ‘No, please, just silence.’,” she recently told The Quietus. That’s why it takes four years for her to release a complete work. She knows what she wants and she refuses to settle for anything less than her own reality.