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First Listen: Ricardo Villalobos, 'Dependent And Happy'

NPR icon by Otis Hart
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When approaching the music of dance-music producer Ricardo Villalobos for the first time, it helps to draw a distinction between escapism and disassociation.

First, escapism. One of the great things about a pop song — or pop culture in general — is the way it can help us forget about our troubles for three minutes or remember the days when we first heard it. Our brains cling to the choruses and anticipate the hooks. We're preoccupied with the moment, be it ecstatic or nostalgic. It's a wonderful feeling — and the antithesis of Villalobos' work.

The idea of disassociation in music is a little different. You're not escaping from anything so much as you're proactively going someplace else, and there's not necessarily a thread between your memories and the experience at hand. Instead of suppressing reality, the brain essentially conjures a new one. You're disassociating yourself with everything extraneous to the music — and when you're listening to the Chilean-born, German-raised Villalobos, that's a lot easier than it sounds.

It's no coincidence that there's a whole family of drugs called "disassociatives," many of which are popular among the dance-music world. But what's special about Villalobos is that you don't need to swallow anything to lose yourself in his meticulously crafted minimal marathons, which bustle with life like microbial ecosystems. His discreet beats regenerate more than repeat, lending his pieces hypnotic forward momentum — an important feat when your songs routinely breach the nine-minute mark.

Over the course of an entire album, and given the right sound system, the effect can be transcendent. The producer's 2003 long-player Alcachofa was voted the No. 1 album of the 2000s by electronic-music hub Resident Advisor, and his follow-up, 2004's Thé Au Harem D'Archimède, cast an even more perplexing spell.

After a four-year break that saw him remix both the ECM catalog and South African shangaan music, the 42-year-old DJ is back with another widescreen corker: Dependent and Happy, an 79-minute, 11-track tear in the space-time continuum. Constructed to be absorbed in a single sitting, the album chugs along without interruption at 128 bpm, picking up depth instead of speed as it unfurls toward oblivion. Every track ushers in a new motif — the Latin rhythms of "Timemorf," the tabla of "I'm Counting," the titular mantra of "Put Your Lips" — acting more like movements than self-contained songs. Needless to say, in a genre where the marketplace is dominated by single songs and 12-inch singles, Dependent and Happy is a rare experience.

As on past Villalobos records, new details emerge with each additional listen, so go ahead and download the NPR Music app for your iPhone or iPad, plug in a nice set of headphones and take a long walk. No need to rush — reality will still be there when you get back.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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