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Essential tracks: Arresting beats of James Blake, Steve Gunn, Miguel

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
James Blake blurs. Steve Gunn mesmerizes. Miguel strings words. And other Essential Tracks

James Blake, "200 Press" EP (1-800-Dinosaur Records). Four songs that further blur British producer-songwriter James Blake's sound, the tracks on "200 Press" mix ethereal, fuzzy beats with distorted, syrupy vocal hooks and layers of subtle percussion. Blissfully synthetic, Blake's work has a John Cage-ian sense of both sound and silence. He isolates tones and utterances that in other hands might be cutting-room scraps, transforms them through precise manipulation and places them within geometric rows of rhythm.

"Building It Still" wobbles with bass and a bottle-clang beat while male and female vocals hum and yowl within a staticky mist. "Words That We Both Know" is a sound poem featuring drunken piano and a Munchkin-esque voice. It's the title track, though, that's the game-changer. A midtempo hip hop jam — though purists might balk at this description — "200 Press" features an oblong bass line and lots of strange aural wobbles but manages to be both melodically sticky and strangely menacing. "Gather round the beat like a campfire," offers the voice. Gladly.

Steve Gunn, "Way Out Weather" (Paradise of Bachelors). Released in the fall, guitarist Steve Gunn's under-heralded "Way Out Weather" landed on a number of best-of-the-year lists — thankfully. Otherwise such an assured, magnetic folk-rock record might have slipped by. The Brooklyn-based guitarist cites experts including Robbie Basho and John Fahey as influences, and the spirits of those artists weave through these eight tracks.

Gunn's got a delicate touch on the guitar and spins through melodies and solos with admirable restraint. "Milly's Garden" roams casually, like an Allman Brothers jam minus the swampiness. "Tommy's Congo" has a funny rhythm to it, one that seems to limp sideways through the measures before finding a West African-suggestive groove. Gunn's a mesmerizing musician whose allure has drawn equally skilled collaborators, and "Way Out Weather" gets deeper with each listen.

Miguel, "N.W.A." (Soundcloud stream). The best moment of San Pedro's great young rhythm and blues seducer Miguel's new three-song EP is a refrain — and title — dedicated to Compton's essential rap team N.W.A. The track, a slow-burning, guitar-based ballad about a woman with great taste in hip hop and weed, "N.W.A." is further lifted via a fantastic verse by O.G. Los Angeles rapper Kurupt of Tha Dogg Pound. It's one of two songs thematically connected by Southern California.

The other, "Hollywood Dreams," rolls along with one of Miguel's typically solid guitar runs and heavy tom-tom rhythms. A song about the temptations of fame, cocaine, "palm trees and numb sensation," it features a coy reference to David Bowie in one of its best verses: "We could be better than heroes," sings Miguel. "We could fly higher than spaceships baby, all night long." The third track is about coffee, which automatically gives it a thematic leg up on most other songs.

Nicki Minaj featuring Drake and Lil Wayne, "Truffle Butter" (Young Money). The same could be said about "Truffle Butter," a bouncy dance song included as a bonus track on the iTunes version of Minaj's surprisingly revealing new album, "The Pinkprint." "Talking filets with truffle butter," explains Drake in the opening verse, part of a braggy series of couplets about seduction, money and food.

Unlike Minaj's previous long-players, which delivered a lot of sped-up dance-floor bangers, "Truffle Butter" is an outlier on "The Pinkprint." With a minimal, spacious beat by Drake-affiliated producer Nineteen85, it's a dance track rich with dynamics — and minus the Top 40 sheen. Be forewarned, though: New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne suggests another use for truffle butter — and it's deliciously explicit.

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