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Carlos Niño & Friends: Placenta Album Review

As a potentially psychedelic experience that often transcends description, new-age music finds an unexpected analog in human birth. There’s nothing trippier or more ineffable than generating new life, deploying cellular tools to create something more than the sum of its parts. With tracks like “Generous Pelvis” and “Placenta, Nourishment, New Home, The Galaxy,” Carlos Niño & Friends’ Placenta makes explicit the connection between the genre’s fascination with womb-like sounds and the physical odyssey of labor. Assembling a who’s-who of the L.A. ambient-jazz scene—including tourmate André 3000, who plays flute on “Birthworkers Magic, and how we get hear…”—and a heady concoction of bells, chimes, synths, whistles, leaves, plants, and shakers, Niño and his far-out compatriots develop an LP with a life of its own—a gestalt marvel.

Opening track “Love to all Doulas!” sets the tone for this mystical instrumental odyssey, Nate Mercereau’s horns punctuating a drone that builds like something (or someone) crowning. “Some rest for the Midwives…” locks us into the groove, an itinerant shuffle that was recorded live with drummer Jamire Williams and saxophonist Sam Gendel in the historically spiritual SoCal town of Ojai. Later, the sound of breathwork and an accordion expand and contract like two sets of ribs on “Placenta, Nourishment, New Home, The Galaxy.”

Thematic breaks, like the compact and propulsive “In Appreciation of Chico Hamilton’s Vast Influence on the West Coast Sound,” provide a welcome respite from feet-in-the-stirrups embodiment. They also keep the record from becoming too conceptually on the nose, flexing Niño & Friends’ range and dynamism. “This ‘I’ was not” takes French composer Ariel Kalma’s spoken-word meditation on ego and lifts it out of the yoga studio with shimmering cymbals and warbling organ. “Either you is, or not. Not more. Nevertheless, life is—always,” he intones, teasing a Seussian riddle stage-set with celestial sounds. “Bi-Location,” another (undetectably) live recording named after the concept of inhabiting two different places in the same physical body at the same time, showcases Andres Renteria’s nimble hand drumming underneath a layer of hazy synthesizer, a sound like something crawling towards the surface and then panting in the aftermath against Aaron Shaw’s dreamy tenor sax.

Like much of Carlos Niño & Friends’ work, the record straddles the boundary between structure and improvisation, jazzy riffs and spasms that return to the gravitational pull of a central motif. “Surges, Expansions” feels the most in progress and least finished, a little unsure of itself (albeit aptly titled). “Moonlight Watsu in Dub” is the record’s most conventional attempt at a groove, groomed enough to play in the lobby of a chic hotel, and all the less interesting because of it.

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