As Night Beats, Texas-born, LA-based artist Danny Lee Blackwell creates music like one might assemble a puzzle. The Western psychedelic auteur builds his work from one moment, an initial spark, that must fit a certain criteria: it must give him goosebumps. If that sensation arrives, Blackwell will pursue the idea relentlessly until he has a new song; if not, he moves onto the next moment, constantly looking for the perfect molecule of a song. On his new Night Beats album, Rajan, the songwriter is at his strongest, creating works that shine with captivating melodies and hypnotic rhythms, but are underscored by subtle choices of craftsmanship that can only be achieved after countless hours in the studio. Blackwell creates a work that lands somewhere between Spaghetti Western film score and psych-pop opus, a career-defining album that reveals much about Danny Lee Blackwell’s artistic philosophy while keeping that ever crucial air of mystery intact.
Album opener “Hot Ghee” not only sets the stage for where the album will head, but establishes Rajan as a scalding-hot take on the intersection of psych-rock, jazz, blues, soul, hip-hop, and more. It’s a wildly diverse and thrilling album, yet remains remarkably cohesive in Blackwell’s deft hands. “Hot Ghee” is built around sultry guitar chords, layers of interacting vocals, swinging drums, a small army of tambourines, and subtle piano runs that gives the song a melodic edge.
“Hot Ghee,” and all of Rajan, is such a special record because it simultaneously showcases Danny Lee’s chops as a world class songwriter, while showcasing the types of music he loves as a fan. Blackwell is one of our most impressive musicians, but he’s also an obsessive listener. Take “Hot Ghee’s” bridge, which moves the song from burnt-edge funk to Sgt. Pepper era Beatles. It’s an unpredictable move, but one that works to perfection thanks to Blackwell’s execution.
Rajan began just like every other Night Beats album. Shortly after releasing the fuzzed-out pop epic Outlaw R&B, Blackwell began itching to create new music. Writing isn’t a process that Blackwell has to sit down and engage with. As Night Beats, it’s something he’s always doing, and the only differentiation between periods of creation is what makes it on certain records and what falls victim to the cutting room.
“Whenever my writing gets to a point where songs begin to take shape, it begins to feel like a faucet,” Blackwell explains. “As soon as Outlaw R&B was finished, I began writing and very quickly fell in love with a few ideas that encapsulated the feeling of Rajan. I think writing is a constant cycle in that it never really begins or ends, but there are definitive points where the writing is leading somewhere.” On this new project, Blackwell felt very early on that this album would be dedicated to his mother. Though thematically it doesn’t always reflect this tribute, the whole project is infused by this familial tie.
“This isn’t a concept album, because every album has a concept. That term never made sense to me. But if it’s about one thing, it’s about this pursuit of freedom that was instilled in me by my mother,” Blackwell says. “In the arts, I’m very lucky in that I have 100% control over what I want to say, and how I do it,” he explains. That means some songs toy with Anatolian funk and Western-tinged R&B. Other songs, like “Nightmare” mess around with 70s Brazilian psychedelia. There are also elements of Chicano soul, rock steady love songs, Lee “Scratch” Perry-inspired dub; essentially, in the world of Night Beats, nothing is off limits. “Rajan is just one of six examples of me doing exactly what I want, and not caring about whether it’s checked out or not. I’m a journeyperson. I want to make things for the sake of making them.”
Night Beats’ new album Rajan is an ode to great music. Danny Lee Blackwell enters the canonical halls of music past and confidently inserts his voice into the conversation. It’s an album both indebted to its influences and wildly innovative in its originality. Above all, it finds Night Beats pursuing every whim imaginable. “I’m here to explore. I think exploration is the underlying reason in a way, of why we do the things we do,” Blackwell explains. “I feel lucky. What can I say? I feel blessed.”