Review: Kid Koala's '12 Bit Blues'

For "12 Bit Blues," Canadian turtablist Eric "Kid Koala" San had a novel idea. Why not make a turntablist blues record? After all, turntablism is a genre that thrives on repurposing the old, reinventing and molding it into something fresh. Often the dustier something sounds, the better. Koala also wanted the record to sound organic, so he opted to not use any computers to piece it together. The booklet that comes with "12 Bit Blues" actually has pictures of the machines and instruments used to put the record together.

He's often not one for track names. He's never been a singles artist. Famously, Koala's 2006 album, "Your Mom's Favorite DJ," came divided into two tracks. The first half was called "Left Side." The second half was called "Right Side." There was a third track, but it consisted of merely a few seconds of what sounded like a cricket chirping. Here, not much has changed. This album has 12 tracks as the title indicates, but the cues for the most part do not have their own titles. On your computer they come up as merely "Bit Blues." I've seen some writers preface each track with its track number, and that may be a good way to differentiate them from one another. A couple of the tracks have parenthesized names as subtitles, too.

The first thing that hits you is how naturally the turntable fits into the blues mold as an instrument. When Koala scratches in a holler as he does during "3 Bit Blues," it sounds downright ghostly. On "4 Bit Blues," the slowed-down voices somehow add heft to the singer's burden. It's almost as if Koala has discovered a secret chamber and reinvented the wheel. Blues, after all, is the basis of most modern forms of popular music, which in turn makes this discovery all the more remarkable. Voices holler and beats skitter. Sometimes the beat cuts out when least expected, but this only makes this record all the more surprising. When you get used to a piano line, it recedes. When you hear a harmonica and it suddenly gets broken up into a scratch-session, it surprises. "4 Bit Blues" in particular grabs one's attention. One voice sings, "Honey, what's the matter?" while a slowed down, cut-up male voice is deconstructed into a soulful howl. Here, the machines somehow make what was probably an emotional moment even more so. This whole experiment is other-worldly. Yes, it would turn away some of the blues scholars, but on the other hand, some experts might find this trippy experiment to be extremely profound. I can safely say this album is unlike anything I have ever heard.

Koala slows beats down to drive home the music's heft. When a voice sings, "Sometimes I feel so lonely. Sometimes I feel like I could cry," over a brooding bass-line, you feel the emotion that such a sentiment holds. When a choir then comes in that sounds like something out of a New Orleans funeral precession, it makes it even more weighty. Koala knows exactly what he's doing.

It's not all downbeat, though. "7 Bit Blues" has an almost gleeful, upbeat, Peter Gunn-esque guitar swagger before it breaks up into a freaky mixture of organ and horns. While "8 Bar Blues (Chicago to L.A. to New York)" has the kind of grimy authoritative swing that would make any underground hip-hop purist proud. It would have been great if a guest like MF DOOM, Mos Def or Mr. Lif had appeared here, but it's just as compelling by itself.

Koala doesn't forget how to have fun, either. "10 Bar Blues," for instance showcases some of the funniest hip-hop sampling I've heard in a while. Over a blues backdrop, Koala scratches all kinds of random words. Someone mentions asking someone else to a squaredance in one spot, while some other bits sound like they were lifted from an instructional make-up tutorial from the fifties.

This album also comes with a special bonus. Both the vinyl and CD editions of the album come with an additional track on one of those old thin, plastic cut-out records. There's also a hand-crank turntable you can build to play it on. As I'm writing this, I'm still figuring out how to put it together … and no, it does not play on my standard turntable. But there's something incredibly imaginative and amazing about such an idea. It's like Koala's sonic rebellion, taking us back to the roots of phonographic sound in the digital age.

"12 Bit Blues" stands as an astonishing experiment. Not only does it stand as a profoundly entertaining blues experiment, but it should also win fans of both turntablism and hip-hop in general. Kid Koala has made a bona-fide classic and one of the finest records you are likely to hear this year. This is an album that serves as a loving ode to a long-gone era. If you think nothing new can be done with the blues, be prepared to be proven wrong!