As Friday night turned into Saturday morning at this year's Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, discerning electronic music fans had a difficult decision to make: get dry-humped by sweaty ecstasy-gobblin' frat boys who were totally stoked to hear a song they know played on top of another song they know, or dance comfortably to something unexpected. It was a choice between two of electronic music's leading sample fiends—critical darling and slobbering pop-whore Girl Talk versus the underground and enigmatic Pretty Lights. Predictability against adventure in a battle for your booty sweat. OK, it wasn't really that difficult—Pretty Lights was the obvious choice.
The brainchild of Fort Collins, Colo., producer Derek Vincent Smith, Pretty Lights comes from the same school of vaguely illegal, sample-based party music that has catapulted Girl Talk into the public consciousness, but eschews Greg Gillis' knuckle-dragging obviousness in favor of a mysterious air that keeps even the most sample-savvy record nerds scratching their heads. In addition, Pretty Lights actually composes pieces, writing big meaty bass lines, squiggly synth parts and funky breakbeats that stand front and center, augmented by found sounds rather than being overwhelmed by them.
Pretty Lights' beats and hooks are built from the ground up, rather than borrowed straight from your local Top 40 station—the closest you'll get to a recognizable tune are some refixed Wu-Tang sketches and four notes from a cover of War's "Slippin' Into Darkness." I'd wager that it's either Ramsey Lewis or The Dayton Sidewinders, but it could be Black Uhuru or maybe even something deeper, more obscure—which is why Pretty Lights rules and Girl Talk drools. After 20 years of obsession with sample-based music and its source material, I want to hear an artist with a bigger, better record collection than mine, who's not afraid to flex the proverbial head. I do not want to hear some tool with a laptop playing Sir Mix-a-Lot. I've heard that. Eight billion times, at least. And I don't care if it's mashed with "Single Ladies."
But there's more to Pretty Lights than just dusty crates and effects filters—there's, uh, pretty lights, too. Realizing that watching a dude with a MIDI controller rock out by himself behind a table might be the most boring thing in the entire live music pantheon, Smith—who's accompanied by a badass drummer during his live shows—pulls out all the stops when it comes to visual stimuli. It's fitting that an artist that copped his nom de boom from a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd concert poster would tote around one of the most impressive light shows on the circuit today, with swirling lights and video displays that will surely send any recovering psychedelic adventurers to Flashback City. I shudder to think how intense it might be if I still tripped the light fantastic. Basically, it's worth the price of admission just to catch the mind-melting imagery.
Pretty Lights is the complete electronic package—daring, danceable music with a synesthetic sideshow for folks with one eye on the future and both hands in the air. It's funky and soulful with wobble-bass and orchestral flourishes to keep your head spinnin' and your ears ringin'. And Pretty Lights does you one better by releasing all of their albums for free—Taking Up Your Precious Time, the double disc opus Filling Up the City Skies and the latest and most accomplished album Passing Behind Your Eyes. Hell, you don't even have to give 'em your email, just use a little bandwidth and you've got almost five hours of top-notch future funk. But you should probably sign up for the email list anyway, because it's a welcome relief from the nonstop onslaught of grammatically challenged foreign royalty and gibberish-blurting ads for dick pills—and frankly, you don't want to be the last one on the block to know when the new ish drops.