Review: Mark Barrott, Sketches from an Island 2

Mark Barrott makes a case for easy-listening music as an art form that can be creative and complex
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Mark Barrott makes a case for easy-listening music as an art form that can be creative and complex
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As boss of the International Feel label, Mark Barrott is the central figure of the recent Balearic revival. His Sketches From an Island 2 is the movement’s best record so far. But first: how is it that this genre, active since the ‘80s, is only now producing material of this caliber?

Much of it has to do with the remarkable critical revival easy-listening genres such as Balearic and its cousin new age have experienced as of late. With convenient entry points like Light in the Attic’s I Am The Center and Jose Padilla’s So Many Colours, it’s easy for discerning music fans to get an idea of “good” versus “bad” chillout music. A listener who retches at the thought of Enya might be enthralled by the cosmic awe of Michael Stearns, or vice versa.

There’s a political element too. Much Balearic and new age creeps into exotica territory, and as we’ve become more aware of cultural appropriation, much of this music will age into obsolescence. This is why most of the great recent easy listening music avoids deliberate evocation of place, instead focusing on more astute global fusion (CFCF’s On Vacation) or fantasy worldbuilding (Matthewdavid’s Trust The Guide and Glide, M. Geddes Gengras’s Ishi).

Barrott compounds this problem by making an album about the place he lives—which happens to be Ibiza, one of the island paradises whose spirit most easy-listening artists would endlessly labor to capture. Sketches From an Island 2 is actually the third album in the series (there was an EP from last year, Sketches From an Island 3, half of whose tracks are collected here); while previous installments deliberately suggested wilder and more exotic scenes, with hand drums and animal noises galore, there’s something gentle, lived-in, and domestic about this record.

Even if you didn’t know the song titles explicitly referred to people and places in Ibiza, these songs’ slow, easy pace suggests whatever places they’re meant to evoke don’t take a whole lot of effort to get to. Even the moodiest song, “Distant Storms at Sea,” emphasizes the “distant” part; its minor-key flutes suggest a disturbance but never congeal into the sort of dissonance that might suggest danger. There’s none of the mystery and unease so common in ambient music. It feels like nothing so much as the daily routine of the happiest person in the world.

Yes, it’s a rich guy’s fantasy. (When asked by The Fader what he liked to cook, he cheekily answered, “I have people who do that for me.”) But who cares? Listening to Sketches From an Island 2 is like listening to a good stoner-rap album, maybe a Currensy tape: it’s pure escapism. It allows you to inhabit not only a place but the enjoyment of experiencing that place. Currensy rapped about his favorite restaurant in TriBeCa, where they “squeeze the lemons themselves” to make lemonade. We get the same vibe when Barrott’s having “Brunch with Suki.”

One of the things that’s made the easy-listening revival so wonderful is how well it toes the line between self-awareness and irony. Barrott knows this music has a bad rap, which is why he avoids the affectations that trip it up. But he never hides behind irony or tries to distract from the fact that he’s making music whose goal is to be easy to listen to. Sketches From an Island 2 is never challenging, even if occasionally the guitar doesn’t do what you’d expect it to do and there’s a tricky rhythm here and there. And he doesn’t shy away from cheesy sounds—he just gives them a new context. Listen to the wah-wah guitar on “Suki”; it’s a sound we’ve all heard and joked about, but the way Barrott strums it ever so quietly offers a new way of listening. More than perhaps any other neo-Balearic album, Sketches From An Island 2 makes a case for easy-listening music as an art form that can be just as creative, complex, and as mentally engrossing as the more challenging fare that more often makes it to year-end lists. A MINUS