Although Jersey City, New Jersey’s P.M. Dawn arrived on a trancey pop carpet of soft-spoken rap, the duo quickly shook off the constraints of any particular musical style and made itself sui generis. While they initially shared a less aggressive attitude and knowledge of history with Arrested Development, the Cordes brothers — Attrell (aka Prince Be, aka the Nocturnal, aka Reasons) and Jarrett (aka DJ Minutemix, aka J.C./The Eternal) — have always been about forging dreamier, lusher grooves. With Brian Wilson, the Beatles and jazz in the mix and a grandiose spiritual sense unmatched since the days when Prince was Prince, P.M. Dawn plies a sound which has its head in the clouds and its feet planted firmly on the dancefloor.
Of the group’s first three albums, Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross sticks the closest to rap’s fundamentals, yet still contains enough surprises and new ideas to announce a unique post-hip-hop style. Intricate backing vocals and psychedelic instrumentals set a luxurious table for Prince Be’s gently proffered introspection. “Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine” drifts away on a cloud of sanguine confidence, yet real life — and the after-life — remain a source of concern. In “Even After I Die,” an insecure love letter to his father, Be admits, “I think I’ll still be scared even after I die.” Recorded in England (where the group was originally signed and found its initial success) and mixed by Killing Joke bassist-cum-ambient producer Youth, the album quotes the Beatles “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and fields an eclectic array of samples — from Hugh Masekela to the Doobie Brothers to Spandau Ballet’s sappy “True,” the basis of P.M. Dawn’s ethereal “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.”
The Bliss Album…? is as expansive as its full title, Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence. The fleet-tongued “Plastic” sums up the anger (which appears to be inspired by Be’s onstage altercation with KRS-One); “Filthy Rich (I Don’t Wanna Be)” and “When Midnight Sighs” do ponder life and existence, while “To Love Me More,” “More Than Likely” (with guest vocals by Boy George) and “I’d Die Without You” address love in a style that could easily fit in on albums like Abbey Road or Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love. Among the album’s other intriguing appointments are a cover of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and samples of George Michael and Joni Mitchell.
P.M. Dawn discards any remaining vestiges of rap on Jesus Wept, an album where the personal, the political and the religious are intertwined into a rich musical reverie. The record ends with an ecstatic medley entitled “Fantasia’s Confidential Ghetto,” a place where Prince (“1999”), Talking Heads (“Once in a Lifetime”) and Harry Nilsson (“Coconut”) not only co-exist but sound wonderful together — as close to a musical definition of utopia as you’d want to hear.