In many ways, Gold Panda’s first release in three years feels like a scrapbook. It’s right there in its oft-repeated genesis: he traveled to Japan with photographer Laura Lewis to create a “sight and sound documentary” of their travels but heard a taxi driver say what ultimately became the record’s title and started work as soon as he arrived home. To hear him tell it, Japan “has this light that we don’t get here [in Chelmsford, England],” a sort of magical filter that makes everything “pastel-y” and pink and green and blue. Good Luck and Do Your Best, then, may be best understood as a sepia-toned stack of photographs and field recordings, an attempt to capture how Japan feels to him, a way to show the intangibles of a place he’s long been familiar with.
Like any scrapbook, Good Luck often shows its seams. But it’s in a way that feels deeply intentional; this is not glossy music, even if it is thoroughly labored-over – comfortably handmade rather than cynically assembled. Tracks glow with a slight crackle, drums are settled-in but rarely intrusive, and the keyboards are uniformly warm and inviting. This ambience quickly reveals Panda to be a phenomenal crafter of atmosphere, and that’s easily the strongest part of the album. It’s by no means aiming for the same mountains Brian Eno scaled when he conceptualized ambient music – this isn’t a record that deliberately sets itself up as “environmental,” at least not solely, as Eno dreamt in Ambient 1: Music for Airports – but it’s certainly comfortable falling in and out of focus thanks to its focus on moods rather than earworming melodies.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t stellar details scattered throughout the journey, though. These tracks are oftentimes as sonically lush as they are structurally sparse, with simple façades hiding complex interiors. It doesn’t help that Good Luck’s best moments are frequently some of its most subdued, making them easier to overlook – but they’re certainly there. Check out the keyboard in the back third of stunning opener “Bird” – rainfall on a warm evening; the skyward, wordless voices and xylophone on the following track – odd beauty that somehow feels both completely right and out-of-place; the keyboard that trips over itself to open “Autumn Fall,” as well as small details like the distant vibration in the right channel – a morning’s walk through a small town. With eleven tracks of this, that list could go on all day; point is, the record’s simply covered in phenomenal sounds.
And, impressively, Gold Panda manages the trick of conveying a uniform atmosphere even when tracks vary in tempo, style, density, and mood. One of the most evocative songs here, “Unthank,” is a lonely, bleary synth solo, like “Bocuma” from Music Has the Right to Children if it were a twisting path rather than an elliptical motion. And it manages to fit in on a record with, say, “Chiba Nights,” a track rooted in dancing piano and rubbery synth-bass. He’ll move back and forth between high- and low-key pieces for half of the record, allowing entire tracks to serve as comedowns. For example: “Pink & Green,” the follow-up to “Chiba Nights,” takes similar elements – queasy bass, piano, splashes of percussion outside the drum kit – and crafts a much more downcast piece that’s no less complex or engaging, with its spotlight slyly getting tossed from the bass to the keys to the percussion and back again.
This kind of sequencing is just par for the course on Good Luck, and while sometimes the more upbeat numbers don’t quite land – “Song for a Dead Friend” is the biggest offender, with strong ideas that never coalesce into a complete statement – it makes for an album that works well when shuffled thanks to a mostly consistent feel but plays best front-to-back thanks to intelligent sequencing decisions throughout. The main issue, then, is that when songs don’t fit, they’re brought even further to the forefront: “Dead Friend” and the organ that initially drives the closing number both come off as uncharacteristically heavy-handed on a record made with a deft touch. Gold Panda seems to be at his best when he’s working with less rather than more, and when he ventures outside that lane it risks being far too noticeable.
But when you just put the album on, it’s surprisingly easy to ignore its flaws and get lost in it. Listening to the record, its origin story starts to make sense: each track can feel like a stop on a grander journey, even if it’s just a day’s walk. It serves as a strong document of place and memory, an impressionistic retelling of the past that manages to feel personal and heartfelt. Taken on its own terms, Good Luck and Do Your Best is a quietly ambitious record, a well-crafted journal, and a modest triumph.
Recommended if you like: Boards of Canada, Caribou, FaltyDL, Four Tet, Shigeto
Favorite tracks: 1, 2, 4, 9, 10