Review: Gold Panda, Good Luck and Do Your Best

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It was about a decade ago now that many software companies were coming out with digital audio workstations marketed at struggling musicians. It’s no coincidence that this corresponded with the rise in amateur beats being released online, some gaining recognition through YouTube. For a select few though, this newfound ease in electronic production allowed truly talented individuals a means to create. Dubstep, wonky, UK bass, and trap are just some of the genres to emerge from this. Skrillex, Flume, Baauer, and Gold Panda are just some of the artists. And while many have moved on, the former with big names like Justin Beiber and ASAP Rocky, the middle two with an array of artists spanning half a dozen genres, it’s the latter who have earned a living through their quaint characteristics. Gold Panda hasn’t tried to innovate, re-define, or expand past his comfort zone, instead, he’s aimed at tweaking and perfecting it. Good Luck and Do Your Best, his third studio LP, is refined, mature, and exploratory, traversing all his new home of Japan has to offer. These same benchmarks though are part of its downfall.

Well into his thirties, Gold Panda has been stationed in Japan over the last year or so, but the Land of the Rising Sun has been on his mind ever since he was a child in London. His debut album, Lucky Shiner, showcased elements of Japanese music with tightly-wound string arrangements. It was clear from the get-go that Gold Panda always aimed at making something unfamiliar, either by time or distance. Apparently recorded in the span of two weeks during Christmas recession in the UK, a time of year when frigid temperatures and snow dominate the landscape, Lucky Shiner was chipper, bright, and hoping for something greater. It was also family-oriented, a personal album that touched upon his childhood through inert circumstances. Naivety ran through Lucky Shiner, and it’s exactly what made it special. Now that Gold Panda’s matured, traveling the world, Good Luck and Do Your Best is dull, an affair that lacks curiosity because the answers are in front of him.

None of the production is outright bad, just done before by the likes of Four Tet, Nujabes, and John Talabot. Like montage videos set to time-lapsed city streets, Gold Panda’s music always feels secondary. Ironically that’s exactly what the first two singles and their accompanying videos, “Time Eater” and “Pink and Green”, set out to do. A tour through Japan in taxis, cars, trains, and subways, with Gold Panda guiding us. With this in mind, Good Luck borrows heavily from its surroundings, but its biggest blunder is that the music isn’t all that interesting. It’s as if Gold Panda journeyed to Japan to make an album despite already knowing exactly how it would sound. The biggest facet of this are the Japanese string arrangements found in almost every song, butting heads with half a dozen other producers doing the same thing. In fact, it’s when Good Luck detours away from this sound that things get more interesting. The wobbling synths fidgeting under the breath of “Song For A Dead Friend”, the second half of “Metal Bird” that provides the only spark of human vocals, and the striking piano and horn parallel on “Your Good Times Are Just Beginning” are just some examples of when Gold Panda inverts influences to draw from his home rather than his immediate surroundings.

The bulk of the tracks see Gold Panda comfortable in territory he knows best; danceable tunes like “Chiba Nights” and “Time Eater” grab ahold of Good Luck. This is a double-edged sword though, for where the beats themselves see progression and fluidity, the loss of innocence hinders them. Take Lucky Shiner’s two best tracks, the formidable “You” and the reluctant “Parents”, both of them taking risks, the former throwing a kitchen sink at the soundboard, the latter departing from the mechanical for something earthy and wholesome. Mature Gold Panda scoffs at all the intangibles on “You”, ratcheting down the absurdity for something more refined, while avoiding anything as private as “Parents”. The closest encounters here are “I Am Real Punk”, which builds layers over organic sounds effectively but lasts twice the length it should, and “Unthank”, which sounds oddly Boards of Canada-esque, at least in their quivering interludes. There is variety in the minute details that’s lost on the grand scope, as Good Luck draws too much from the same source.

Good Luck is a soundtrack for the tourist, a busy bee taking in the sights and sounds of something foreign. It doesn’t want to be a primary focus, It’s content living under the breath and thoughts of each passerby. Makes sense why, when taken alone, the product isn’t all that interesting, simply mirroring textures and styles already existing around it. The album’s cover comments on the album’s overall sound: a Japanese security guard inspecting some overgrown brush. He’s taking in the peculiar details, but when a wide scope is applied the vine-covered fence is just another one he’s driven by every day. In a twist of irony, Good Luck’s best moments are those in which Gold Panda draws from a new foreign—the UK and other Western lands bring the album its most exciting commodities. Nevertheless, Good Luck is just fine relaxing in the shadows. C PLUS

Read more of Brian’s writing at his blog, Dozens of Donuts.