John Carroll Kirby ‘My Garden’ LP (Stones Throw) 4/5

The evolution of the Los Angeles-based Stones Throw Records has really been brought into stark contrast with their recent releases, particularly over the last year. Once renowned as being forerunners of the era of leftfield hip-hop that spawned revered projects still celebrated years later including an extensive Madlib catalogue notwithstanding the collaboration with MF Doom in what’s become a cult classic ‘Madvillainy’ (2004, under the joint name Madvillain) or J Dilla’s cherished ‘Donuts’ (2006) which would be released on his 32nd birthday and three days before his untimely passing.

But while other hip-hop labels of this era have now become defunct, Stones Throw was able to adapt and overcome, expanding their catalogue beyond the signature sound it had become noted for and welcoming leftfield and future soul artists into the fold. Aloe Blacc’s ‘Good Things’ serves as a strong highlight, featuring the global success of its lead single ‘I Need a Dollar’, and even looking more specifically at their last few releases: violinist and vocalist Sudan Archives released an excellent project in ‘Athena’, the 80s-styled funk of Prophet’s ‘Don’t Forget It’ certainly warrants mention as does the eclectic jazz of Jamael Dean’s ‘Oblivion’. Which brings us to John Carroll Kirby’s ‘My Garden’.

Serving as his debut album for Stones Throw, the pianist, composer and producer, John Carroll Kirby, has actually found himself in an incredibly prolific period with his debut album, ‘Travel’, having only been released in 2017 through LA label Outside Insight; subsequent releases including ‘Meditations in Music’ (2018, Leaving Records) along with the release ‘Tuscany’ (Patience, 2019) and the free-to-download project ‘Conflict’. Kirby’s talents haven’t just been relegated to his own releases, however, as his skills as a producer, instrumentalist and writer have made their way to projects from an incredibly diverse line-up of acts including Solange Knowles, whose album of last year ‘When I Get Home’ saw a strong contribution from Kirby’s production and writing throughout, as well as further session work for Mark Ronson’s ‘Late Night Feelings’ and last year’s album by alt-pop outfit, Bat For Lashes.

While placing the piano at the forefront, Kirby has channelled his own solo work into exploring numerous themes including peace, hope and even nature. ‘My Garden’ seems to touch on elements of spirituality and a connection to the earth around us while set to sparse, atmospheric production which would almost make match-made-in-heaven accompaniments to the visuals of a Michael Mann film – the filmmaker was famous for tailoring his films into mini love letters to Los Angeles which, at times, it can feel like ‘My Garden’ is inclined to do.

Kirby’s compositions expertly capture this enticing cocktail of influences and experiences which you can slowly underpin through repeated listens resulting in a rich and diverse aesthetic throughout. While certainly different to the music Stones Throw were noted for in the early-00s, the label always waved the flag for innovative LA-based artistry and, with ‘My Garden’, they’re continuing that tradition all these years later.

Imran Mirza