The ethereal experience of listening to ‘Notes with Attachments’

Blake Mills and Pino Palladino, an unlikely duo, are creating an album distinct from their past endeavors.

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Susan Behrends Valenzuela

Blake Mills and Pino Palladino are two veterans in the pop music industry, from different generations and with different career paths. Nonetheless, their collaboration “Notes With Attachments” forges an entirely new path. (Staff Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

By Ethan Saffold, Contributing Writer

Blake Mills and Pino Palladino are no strangers to the pop music industry. 

Mills, 34, has worked with artists from Fiona Apple to Vulfpeck to Lana Del Rey, and was nominated for a producer of the year Grammy for his work on Alabama Shakes’ 2015 record “Sound & Color.” Palladino, 63, is a world-renowned session bassist whose work on records like D’Angelo’s “Voodoo,” Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun” and the John Mayer Trio’s “Try!” has landed him a spot among hallowed names like Jaco Pastorius and James Jamerson. Palladino even toured with The Who in place of the late, great John Entwistle. There’s no question that the road that has led these talented artists to this moment is star-studded. However, their collaboration forges an entirely new path.

“Notes With Attachments” is not a record that I would put on a party or workout playlist. Pressing play on the first track “Just Wrong” is like seeing a landscape painting at an art museum — sure, you could stare at it for thirty seconds and move on, but that would be missing the point. This music is made for contemplation, and there are various lush textures and small details to discover. The album begs you to sit down and get lost in it. In terms of genre, there’s no one answer. Hints of funk, Afro-Cuban, Indian, classical and blues all weave together to create the homogenous texture that is “Notes With Attachments.”

Take “Ekuté,” for instance. The tune begins with an uneven-feeling pattern on the shaker and slowly piles on the layers: a plucked ostinato on the guitar, a clavinet, an electric guitar. Everything seems to be in a state of limbo before a low E-flat from Palladino’s signature bass sound anchors the groove. One of my favorite aspects of “Notes With Attachments” are the melodies that dance from instrument to instrument. On “Ekuté,” the melody swings effortlessly from a choir of low reeds to a piercing saxophone to an electric guitar soaked in fuzz and distortion.

Like “Ekuté,” “Djurkel” begins with a smattering of instruments that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other until a few moments in. At roughly halfway  there is a watershed moment — one of the few moments in the album where almost every instrument comes together in unison to create a growling, angry timbre with enough low end that you’ll feel it in your chest. 

Many listeners might choose to skip the title track of “Notes With Attachments” it’s an outlier on this groove-centric album as the only track with no percussion whatsoever. Opening with just Palladino’s bass floating in a sea of delay and reverb, the timbre is reminiscent of Palladino’s breakout performance on Paul Young’s cover of the Marvin Gaye tune “Wherever I Lay My Hat.” All of the instruments on the track have the uncanny feeling of being right next to your ear while simultaneously miles away. At around halfway through the album, “Notes With Attachments” gives the listener a respite after the brashness and exitement of “Ekuté.”

“Chris Dave,” named after the session drummer who played on the album, is one of the more straightforward tracks on the album. Along with haunting, processed wind instruments and every kind of percussion imaginable, this track contains the only vocals on the album at around thirty seconds in. 

The closest comparison I can draw to “Notes With Attachments” would be to Snarky Puppy, a supergroup whose lineup is stacked with some of the world’s greatest musicians, such as Cory Henry, Michael League, Larnell Lewis and Mark Lettieri. “Notes With Attachments” and Snarky Puppy share an indescribable sense of clarity in their arranging — despite a dense variety of instruments, every sound has its own little home within the mix. In addition, both ensembles have the ability to create a groove so infectious that it gets under your skin and lives there for a while. Snarky Puppy can lay down an unassailable groove like no other group, but where they have solidity, Mills and Palladino dwell in ethereality.

“Notes With Attachments” listens more like a classical symphony than a pop record. The first time I heard the full album, every subsequent song felt like it blended into the one before, so much so that I was surprised when the album looped back to start again. Each song seems more like a movement of a larger work, and the melodies contained within would be more aptly described as motifs rather than hooks. Every new musical statement evolves from the last, and no idea stays for too long, creating musical moments that beg to be cherished and savored before they disappear.

Mills and Palladino are two names that I never thought would release an album together. One represents everything fast and loud about today’s music scene, while the other proves that what was great in the past doesn’t have to change to fit the present. If you’re looking for another cookie-cutter pop album, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for something groovy, orchestral and stimulating, “Notes With Attachments” is the album for you.

Email Ethan Saffold at [email protected]