Needless to say, I haven't been sleeping especially well. Ghettoville, Darren Cunningham's fourth full-length as Actress, is a disconcerting listen—it's long, abstract, agitated and seedy, with tentatively intriguing passages followed by wholly frustrating ones. It's got the vibe of a condemned city block and all the atmosphere of a moldy, fluorescent-lit basement. Given any opportunity to be distracted, you'll happily lose Cunningham's thread within a beat or two. You might forget the record was on until well after it's over.
Actress has never been in the business of making easy records, of course, but taken together, his past three albums chart the evolution a truly singular voice: Splazsh sharpened Hazyville's expertly damaged techno—a key influence for our current glut of proudly lo-fi dance-not-dance producers—before R.I.P. lifted off into the starry sky beyond the smog. Pitched as a kind of sequel to Hazyville, if not Cunningham's final Actress album, Ghettoville returns to earth and doesn't like what it sees.
The album's opening gambit should weed out the weak, and you can't blame them. The first cut, "Forgiven," has the loopy, endlessly tripping feel of Splazsh highlight "Hubble," but its groove never overcomes the overwhelming dankness of the production. Same goes for the next few tracks, which move from unfocused burst to simplistic sketch unimpeded. The section lands at the pure digital sludge of "Contagious," which sounds like a bad R&B mp3 ripped to YouTube and played off a waterlogged netbook. There are glimmers of Actress' old spark here—chunky and low-slung, "Corner" should get your head nodding, at least—but this first half hour or so feels like a death march.
Things do start to turn, though—call it a smolder beneath the ashes. The steamy tension of "Time," the watercolor tones of "Gaze" and the Dilla-tinged groove of "Rap" (a kind of listenable counter-image to "Contagious") betrays some of the brilliance often found on Actress records. Still, these wisps come smeared in noise, dulled by overprocessing or built from notes so tightly clustered it's hard to tell one from the next. "Don't stop the music," sings one of Ghettoville's only discernable voices on "Don't." You might wonder if you're being taunted.
If Ghettoville does find Actress at the end of the line, then are we to hear this as Cunningham taking us all down with him? Should we miss him less when he's gone for making an album devoid of the magic we've come to expect? I and many others won't enjoy this record, but those of us who listen intently may come to accept it. Ghettoville doesn't sound like the work of a producer who's no longer able to make wondrous music; there's enough craft and intention here to suggest that, for whatever reason, he just didn't this time.