James Blake says he’s writing love songs now, but I don’t believe him. Overgrown, his recently released long-player, is only slightly less dour than his self-titled debut. You could probably guess the general mood of the record just by checking-out the album cover of Blake looking ever-so disconsolate in an overcoat, along with the snow, darkened features, and soft focus.
In love or otherwise, Blake still possesses a unique ability to find the hollowed-out crevices where introverts and depressives go to hide. The opening title-track is pretty much perfect, easing in with Blakes’ falsetto just barely accompanied by a chilly bass riff and a single synth tone. The atmosphere is instantly reminiscent of the most achingly vulnerable moments of any life, and it only takes a moment to get lost in it. Patiently, Blake adds layer upon layer: waves of mellow chords, a distant hi-hat, kick drum like a heartbeat, and half-heard vocal phrases that deteriorate and degenerate as the song peaks and engulfs the listener. Now you’re not lost, you’re drowning.
Miraculously, Blake maintains this defenseless heart feeling for most of the album’s 10 tracks. He does, however, release some unexpected aggression in the middle of “Life Round Here,” and attempts a defiantly cheerful smile in “Retrograde,” like someone determined to enjoy their own birthday party, even though no one showed up. And on “DLM,” he shows off his concept for gospel in the internet age on the album’s prettiest and simplest track. There’s probably 10% more songwriting on this album that the last and 50% less distortion. Other than that it’s not a huge departure from his first LP, despite the intervening EPs taking several unexpected detours. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the most forgettable cut, “Digital Lion,” is the one with Brian Eno’s name in the credits. After that, though, the last three songs are perhaps even more solipsistic than the first seven. That’s not a complaint. Blake has obviously spent a lot of time excavating the peculiar internal world that loners like him inhabit. So if you do find yourself feeling like he does, Overgrown will have you right at home.
After focusing his blurry vision on his somewhat straightforward plower-trio, Timmy’s Organism, for the last couple of years, Timmy Vulgar’s got Human Eye out exploring the stars again. Yalping straight out of 4: Into Unknown’s gate on opener “Getting’ Mean,” a woozy, guitar fuzz–caked, tom-tumbling Brontosaurus waddle, Vulgar begins with, “The world is bad, and it only gets worse... Feed me poison, just give me a shot.” Maybe not the day-glo visions we think of when the word “psychedelic” gets bandied about, but it’s still some kind of salacious trip nonetheless.
Were you guzzling gasoline rather than battery acid while listening to a few of these cuts (“Faces in the Shadows,” “Getting’ Mean”), you could be forgiven for noticing a similar swerve to Kyuss and the stoner ilk from the latter-90s. But like the demented collages that always festoon Vulgar products, Human Eye’s sound explodes not just with their groovy, stomping, wah-wah wounded riffs, but with burning synth shrieks, bombastic drum tumbling, and quick shocks of sound effects.
And some hefty hooks, if you stick with it. “Alligator Dance” is a sweeping glam-anthem, laced with a tricky piano tinkling around, and epic back-up vocal “woo-woos.” Vulgar’s vox always drips with the greenest snot, even when he voyages into ballad galaxies, like the tormented, delicacy of “Surface of Pluto,” where he sings of that planet like she’s a girl he’s pining for across the room at a house party, and “Immortal Soldier,” a forlorn heartbreaker whose rolling drums and aching keyboard melody feels immortal in it’s scope. Such moments are almost pretty for such a sauced band and a man known for sometimes drinking paint to get up for a gig.
So while the frayed wires of analog synth skizz, wah-wah pedal pandemonium, and fuzz coating on everything all perfectly emulate the burning detritus of a satellite being sent into orbit, Vulgar’s voice—crackling at the edges and desperately strained—and the band’s shaky, tension-filled playing always keep Human Eye’s sweat dripping forward, never settling into rote jamming. And just as it might, they pull out furious spazzbombs like “Buzzin’ Flies” and “Juicy Jaw,” that leap out of this muddle like one of those helpful “he went that-a-way” arrow signs floating in space in a Marvin the Martian cartoon. Let the bearded craft beer–hoisters have their Animal Collectives and Crystal Antlers. When it comes to having to slog through a batch of au currant psychedelics, I’ll hang with these Martian monsters anytime.
Few statements in the English language are as unsurprising and trigger such concrete and certain expectations as “Thee Oh Sees are releasing a new record.” John Dwyer’s San Francisco garage rock act has built a substantial catalog of consistently solid records over the past six years, and Floating Coffin (which is being released by the band’s own label, Castle Face Records) fits squarely into the group’s discography.
For the most part, Floating Coffin’s 10 songs fall into the “loud” segment of Thee Oh Sees songbook. Scorchers like album opener “I Come From The Mountain” showcase one of the band’s strengths: its ability to channel a frantic energy into a driving and energizing rock song that serves as the perfect setting for Dwyer’s ecstatic yelps. “Strawberries 1+2” starts off on this same track, but eventually transitions into the type of vaguely psychedelic groove that’s become a well-known weapon in the group’s arsenal. But while these and the album’s other songs are decent enough examples of contemporary garage rock from the Bay Area, there’s nothing on Floating Coffins that really stands out as anything the band hasn’t done before, and the album as a whole seems to suffer accordingly. This isn’t the best Oh Sees album, but it also is not the worst, so it will be sure to delight dedicated fans and provide decent enough background tunes for those upcoming summer road trips.
While Matt Shadetek is probably best known for being half of the founding nucleus of the eclectic Dutty Artz label (the other half being DJ Rupture), he also steps from behind the desk on occasion to deliver some beats and production, the last time being 2010’s trifecta of the Dutty House EP, Flowers and his collaboration with his business partner, Solar Life Raft.
As a label, Dutty Artz has a reputation for not being afraid to go a little leftfield with the sounds they produce. As such, it’s a little surprising that The Empire Never Ended is a fairly straightforward record. While sonically there are elements of dubstep, some snatches of Baile funk and other dance music touches, the overriding drive is that of trap. Trap originated in the South around early 2000 as the fuel for a number of hip-hop and crunk artists, but recently has found life as the sound du jour for electronic deejays and producers.
The twist on the trap formula is the production touches that Shadetek wraps around the bones of the songs. However, the eternal question for any instrumental hip-hop album is whether it stands alone as an album or leaves one waiting for the next emcee to come in. In that respect, The Empire Never Ended is a mixed bag. While Shadetek unquestionably knows his way around a production board and can make neck-snapping beats, too often it feels like the songs are missing a certain something—like more vocals. Songs like “Don’t Give It Up” and “Psychomatic” may be among the best tracks Shadetek has ever made and make you wonder what if the whole record had vocalists. As it stands, the record seems like a compilation of ideas rather than an album proper.
Dorian S. Ham
As much as I’d love to sit around and write about Blur or bands connected to Blur or bands that sound like or have the same instruments as Blur, I occasionally force myself to venture outside of the blurry bubble surrounding my taste in order to keep in contact with the zeitgeist. This helps me to stave off the ever growing beard of misanthropy and to keep a bold coat of paint on the “get off my lawn” sign.
Outside of that four-man rock band format, there are voids to fill. There have been plenty of male and female electronic duos, with the Eurythmics being probably the most perfect hybrid of operatic front woman and rock & roll backman that ever graced hard vinyl. There was the Human League, a trio embodying the wet look in perfect contrast to the made-up machismo of Duran Duran. More recently, Kisses made a splash (at least with me) with their hazy, dream beach electronicisms and reverbed vocals.
Sonen comes from Atlanta, GA, and where Kisses keeps cool in the sun, Sonen sweats like black leather–clad clubbers. A drum machine band for kids that want to dance (the tick-tick is, of course, followed by a boom—over and over again), yet focused on vocal melodies and progression, Sonen’s male/female trade-off harmonies are more of an instrument than a point from which the rhythm diverges. On “I Want It All,” the yolo-pop creeps in, and later the dynamics begin to touch on dub-step and witch house wub-wubbing on “Upside Down,” but still this is worthy of listening if only because it is cutesy pop on the surface and definitely deeper and more complex underneath.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy