Music to Toke With: Bells Atlas’ Meditative Funk

Bells Atlas Cannabis Now

Bells Atlas have a knack for juggling an ability to hypnotize with a biting attention to detail; for every inventive and propulsive bass line threading its way through their songs, there is sure to be a lyrical guitar figure, unexpected blast of percussion or nuanced vocal melody waiting around the corner. Since releasing their debut full-length in 2013, the Oakland quintet have only perfected the formula; their two recent singles, “Spec and Bubble” and “N C A T,” offer up some of their deepest grooves and most vivid arrangements yet. Able to simultaneously lull and keep us on the edge of our seats — no easy feat — these songs, like all of the band’s catalogue, only blossom when combined with some sweet bud.

That was certainly the case when, on one of the Bay Area’s seemingly endless gloomy evenings (of the meteorological variety, not to be confused with the impending feelings of dread the marijuana movement is now feeling with Jeff Sessions as attorney general), I took a few drags of Obama Kush and let these two songs play on repeat. Bells Atlas’ music demands multiple listens; heard in communion with the kush, all the details rose to the surface at once.

Of the two, “Spec and Bubble” is the curveball; it’s constantly in motion, but offers no climactic peak, or, for that matter, point of resolution. The song takes us through a series of musical passages; the feeling is akin to being ushered from room to room of an expansive funhouse. At one point, we are caught up in a blurry cacophony of synths and muddled percussion; at another the fog disappears, exposing a dry clatter of handclaps and a thrilling guitar hook. Last year, Bells Atlas became the house band for a tour of live performances by the popular public radio podcast Snap Judgment; like the stories their music accompanied, “Spec and Bubble” moves linearly, from one scene to another.

“N C A T,” on the other hand, is all shameless thrill. Fueled by a raunchy bass line, the song evokes the G-funk and swagger that Kendrick Lamar brought back into the spotlight on To Pimp a Butterfly; countering that groove, however, Sandra Lawson-Ndu’s vocal line, is finely-drawn and disarming, adding an element of levity to the track as pinpricks of guitar and a wistful synth fill out the frame.

Yet at the end of the day, what makes this music so impressive isn’t these individual parts but their seamless interplay. All five members of Bells Atlas are virtuosic musicians; part of their skill is in showing restraint and knowing when to let each other shine. Guitar parts, crunching drums and Lawson-Ndu’s melodies dazzle by not overstaying their welcome, but letting us savor them before moving on to the next thing. Playful, heartfelt and complex, Bells Atlas make music for us to invest in, even when all we want to do is get lost in it.

TELL US, what music do you like to enjoy after a smoke sesh?

Max Savage Levenson is an audio producer and writer living in Berkeley, California. His work has appeared on NPR Music, All Songs Considered, the Hash podcast, KQED's The California Report and others. Max also hosts a totally non-recorded live-audience talk show called the Max Savage Show, because he is a narcissist who just wants people to like him.

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