As Speculator, Nick Ray is free to dabble in multiple quotation marks to describe the intent of his music. His first offering was, according to Ray, a melange of analog artifacts meant to reflect “the consumption of music.” Released by the tape mavens at Leaving Records, Lifestyle was a trip for anyone who spent their formative years endlessly eying cassettes at the local Camelot or errantly dubbing the Top 40 for homemade collections. The album was conceived for cassette and it brilliantly captured the allure of cassette culture, sounding like a murky mixtape excavated from between the seats of an ’85 Camaro. It’s a warped and worn collage, running everything from Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You” to Oasis’ “Wonderwall” through a muscle relaxant slog. There are splices of Prince offset by dialogue from the Ninja Turtles and Van Halen quite literally on fast forward—all aligned with Ray’s distant songs, which are more or less drowsy, abstract visions of pop radio. There’s been a lot of attention paid to nostalgia these days, and though Lifestyle used direct bits and pieces to trigger memories of city pool days and jerry-rigged boomboxes, Ray’s nostalgia tends to take on a blurred, intoxicating form.
Nice, Ray’s first album pressed to vinyl, is the opposite. Instead of using source material, besides a few tiny wound-up edits, he’s creating music that, as he puts it, requires “active listening.” You can’t simply put the record on and expect the immediate gratification of Lifestyle. Nice is decidedly more concrete despite the lack of force-fed samples. Here’s a guy obsessed with the devouring of Paula Abdul and the Jets, and Nice is his attempt to remember without a reference aid and with only the reverberations of nostalgia ringing in his head. Nice presents a matured transition for Ray. In comparison to Lifestyle, an album some might regard as merely a developmentally challenged mixtape, Nice relies on composition and atmosphere, though within Ray’s comfort zone. These are memorable songs, but also fuzzy replicates of the past. Had one tried to commit to soundtracking much of ’80s VHS cinema, it might just sound like this. “Century Select” is the hair-metal chase scene, “Jenny Says” the frat party with the new wave band as live entertainment, and the effervescent “Blue Rose” tries to relive the moment when Emilio Estevez sees a dolled-up Ally Sheedy for the first time in The Breakfast Club. These are not bootleg versions of what is usually regarded as ’80s fluff, however, as Ray is skilled in obscuring his influences. I suppose my interpretation is the “active” part? Elsewhere, Ray possesses a knack for drone instrumentals, like “FERGIE,” which soars close to the motorik ambience conceived by such bands as Tangerine Dream and Cluster. His best moments, though, come in his sleight-of-hand layering of etherized guitar hypnogagia. His contemporaries—everyone from Ducktails to James Ferraro and even Atlas Sound—must be rubbing off. At worst, Ray might be accused of piling on the pedagogical explanations of his music a tad heavy, but at best, Speculator is amniotic twilight pop that rewards with repeat active spins.
Kevin J. Elliott