R&B

REVIEW: Smalltalker - Talk Small

a0660695160_16.jpg

Will Shenton

Smalltalker's latest EP, Talk Small, opens with a quiet, distant-sounding jazz-hop groove, casually noodling along and seeming to promise a more demure sound than their previous work. But fifteen seconds in, the track comes into focus with a few bold instrumental hits, fleshing out the atmospheric haze before launching into the lush harmonies of "Wildcard." It's a playful tease to kick off the record, and one that captures the band's easy confidence.

One of the first things you'll notice about Smalltalker is the comparatively huge roster of musicians—ten in the regular lineup, including ThrdCoast's very own Gerard Marcus on trumpet—that gives their smooth, jazzy soul its size. But they don't just rely on walls of sound to bowl you over; every song is meticulously crafted, giving each instrument its own time to shine. The crisp production makes it easy to pick out the constituent parts, leaving the listener plenty to discover on subsequent listens.

Talk Small may be a relatively short EP, but it feels like a fully-formed album. We ride from the wistful melodies of "One Too" to the energetic, danceable highs of "To Choose," before closing with the quiet reminiscences of "Sorry." And with such a density of instrumental and vocal elements throughout, Smalltalker seems to have crammed more into its twenty-minute runtime than most bands do with twice that. It's an impressive feat, and one that will leave you satisfied even as you pine for their full-length debut.

REVIEW: Sudan Archives - Sink

sudan.jpg

Raquel Dalarossa

At 17, Brittney Parks declared that she didn’t like her first name. In response, her mother granted her a new one: Sudan. Today, the woman once known as Brittney writes, records, and produces her own music as Sudan Archives, a project that’s as self-determining and uncontainable as its creator. On her latest EP, Sink, she crystallizes her varied influences and inspirations—minimalist R&B, North African folk, electronic pop—into something entirely her own.

At this point, Sink—released May 25th via Stones Throw Records—has already been making the rounds through every music blog and tastemaker’s playlist, and that’s no surprise for an EP that was clearly intended to make waves. From its bold cover art to its declarative lead single “Nont for Sale,” Sink is proof that Sudan Archives has truly arrived.

The single’s lyrics should spell it out for you: “This is my light, don’t block the sun … This is my time, don’t waste it up,” she announces over a bed of plucked strings and a trap beat. Her violin—a self-taught instrument—is a centerpiece in most of the tracks, juxtaposing electronic elements to create something of a cross between SBTRKT and Andrew Bird. But her own references are much farther reaching; on her Instagram, Sudan Archives often praises the Sudanese multi-instrumentalist Asim Gorashi, for example.

You can hear her more experimental folk leanings come out in the rich textures of tracks like “Pay Attention” and “Escape.” The former is warmly hued and grounding, like a tribal chant laced with the sounds of the outdoors, while the latter is faster paced, with watery, splashy sounds for percussion, creating the feeling of a rushing river. The vocal treatment often adds just the right kind of dimension to each track; she’s at times slinky (as in “Mind Control”), and at other times almost childish. In “Beautiful Mistake” her voice softens as she sings “I’m a beautiful mistake … I don’t give a fuck / I know that you don’t like it when I say that / But baby do you feel me?”

The confidence she exudes in each of these six tracks is a constant highlight, and that’s saying something for an EP full of standout details. One thing is for sure: Sudan Archives is an artist worth keeping an eye on, lest she take over the world.

REVIEW: Bernice - Puff LP: In the air without a shape

a4112600636_10.jpg

Raquel Dalarossa

When we listen to music, we typically respond emotionally. We talk about how it feels to listen to a certain song—or, perhaps more accurately, how the sounds communicate those feelings to us. 

Bernice, on the other hand, create music that communicates on an entirely different sensory level. It travels through space, it seems to have dimension and body, and it's much more easily imagined or seen than it is felt. The Toronto-based band, led by songwriter and vocalist Robin Dann, treat sounds like shapes and songs like spatial playgrounds. In their new Puff LP (subtitled In the air without a shape), out today via Arts & Crafts, they take a minimalist approach to their sound design that draws attention to the negative space, creating a boundless and playful atmosphere for us to revel in.

Many of the songs on this seven-track album (yes, they are minimalists in the volume of their output, too) have been around for a while—“Puff” was, after all, originally the name of an EP released nearly a year ago. But there are new additions as well as new imaginings of older work, proving that the experimental group are always up to try things just a little differently. Where previously, on the EP, the songs were largely produced by Shawn Everett (best known for his Grammy-award winning work on Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color), now we find Bernice themselves at the helm, alongside engineer Matt Smith. The resulting differences are striking, and very telling of the band's tastes.

Though they've been compared to Sade in the past, their R&B leanings are on full display in this album with a re-recorded version of the smooth, reverberating "David" and richly sensual "One Garden." But things get especially interesting when they pick up the pace just a little, as in the LP's single "Glue." It juxtaposes soulful interludes with catchy, electronic-leaning verses, similar to how the lyrics juxtapose Dann with the person she's addressing: "I am rubber and you are glue." Another favorite of mine is "St. Lucia," which has been cast in an entirely new light for this release. Doing away with the song's dense, industrial character when it appeared on the Puff EP, Bernice transform it into something much lighter on its feet yet simultaneously more ominous.

There's something at once aqueous and stark about the album as a whole. It can feel like being submerged at the deepest depths of the ocean, or floating through the vacuum of space. Closing song "Boat" showcases this effect perfectly. An endearing vocal melody sits front and center, while a cacophony of ornamental sounds buzz by or float softly beside us, creating a sort of aural parallax effect. You get the sense that our attention is always exactly where the band wants it to be, which goes to show how well constructed Puff really is.

REVIEW: Jaunt - Cue

a2652319061_10.jpg

Phillipe Roberts

With Cue, Jaunt exploits the EP format to its fullest, sampling caught-from-the-air melodies liberally while exercising tasteful restraint, knowing when each elegant idea has run its course. Tirelessly catchy with an expert ear for the seemingly nonsensical oddball songwriting twist, the band leaves you hanging on every note, riding a constant wave of discovery as each song refuses to wear out its welcome. From top to bottom, ambient outro included, Cue unfolds like a singles collection; a Now That’s What I Call Experimental Pop hit parade with replay value galore.

No matter how you slice it, the dominant mode of Cue, the roots and rhythm of the project, is R&B. Whether it’s the depth of the pocket on “Best Case” or the sultry choral vocals on “Faster Interactions," the Isley Brothers-style shuffle of “Machined” or the detailed backing harmonies of “Intimate Sunset,” Jaunt keep it grounded in the groove, even as they push it into left field. Fans of Hundred Waters or Dirty Projectors will feel right at home here, though the beats on Cue are funkier than anything Longstreth and Co. have put out in more than a few years.

Jaunt’s take on the genre chases melodies into a corner and lets them fight their way out. Ideas rarely loop more than once before mutating into inviting new forms. The penultimate track, “Faster Interactions,” bends its riffs to the breaking point, sometimes abandoning them altogether for stranger pastures. Group vocals jarringly glide down into a lower register before landing on a cushion of electric organ. Video game sounds double up the drum hits in a segue towards a rumbling bass synth outro, a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of rhythm reminiscent of the best of Stereolab on Dots and Loops. It’s truly boggling how many transformations occur, but even more stunning given the track’s three-minute runtime.

These slight runtimes—“Faster Interactions” is the only track to even crack the three-minute ceiling—will have you dragging the dial back again and again. And although none of the songs feel “incomplete” per se, Jaunt’s tendency to French exit just as your mind latches onto the hook will absolutely leave you wanting more, launching you into a bit of an addictive cycle. The almost-title track “Cued” is the record’s main offender, a gorgeous bit of digital vocal riffing dancing atop a hauntingly beautiful layer of swooning cinematic synthesizers. As it floats to a one-minute finish, you can’t help but feel a sense of helplessness at having been teased so perfectly. Putting a picture-perfect slow jam banger intro at the end of a record is malicious, cruel, and utterly brilliant—the kind of move that will have you scrambling to pre-order the next episode.

In the midst of this double-edged generosity, there’s “Intimate Sunset,” perhaps the one track on Cue where Jaunt’s contemporary sensibilities take a back seat to cozy nostalgia. A gentle, '60s-inspired folk tune, the track gives up the misdirection and sticks to wringing every drop of romance out of those chords. It’s a patch of firm ground, tucked between the shifting fault lines and earth-quaking juxtapositions before and after, but it really shows off just how flexible Jaunt are becoming in their stylistic evolution, exposing that their quirky turns aren’t simple ignorance, but calculated leaps away from the intuitive “right” way. Cue is a real treat of a record, a delightful adventure in opening up the senses. Comfort food spiced to perfection.

REVIEW: Box Dreams - Box Dreams

a1751785000_10.jpg

Phillipe Roberts

No doubt aided by the ascent of Frank Ocean to minor R&B deity status with his continued success and cross-genre appeal, the archetype of the lonely lo-fi crooner seems inescapable these days. You know the type: isolated, sensitive, destitute in the absence of love, but cloaked in enough reverb to (hopefully) turn that sadness into sex appeal. It’s a winning formula, albeit done to death; after all, once the echoes die down, the last minor 7th rings out, and you’re left sitting there to parse over the lyrics sheet, the self-deprecating clinginess so endemic to the genre can really have you running towards sunnier pastures.

At first listen, Box Dreams’ self-titled effort shows off a striking affinity for that archetype. His lyrics drift between yearning, hazy romance and escapist nostalgia, his cavernous productions stuffed with chopped horns, dreary guitars, and foggy field recordings suggesting a body in dire need with a mind wrapped in comfortable seclusion. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Adam Rhodes has more to offer than rose-tinted atmosphere. In fact, in the best moments on Box Dreams, he takes pleasure in sudden shifts from warm and sprawling soundscapes to hard-hitting moments of cold interiority. Working between these two temperatures with a graceful ear for sonic narrative, Box Dreams puts his inner workings on display in a lush feast for the ears.

These focal oscillations rarely take longer than half a song to occur. Rhodes works fast to create structure, and moves at an unrelenting pace through a dizzying array of melodic ideas. The second track, “Am I a Moment,” is a prime example. Starting with a psychedelic breakbeat stomp, an air-clearing guitar chord rings out just under a minute in. Horns loop and turn in on themselves before a modified beat returns, coasting over a wonky bassline to a chorus that recalls Daniel Rossen’s contributions to Grizzly Bear. A ghostly sax solo misdirects your attention before the vacuum returns again to provide a clear foundation for a springy, percussive outro coated in fuzz guitar. The productions of this style, particularly in the penultimate bop “Peach Juice,” are pure color, free associating between tones but meshing cohesively.

This tendency for songs to turn inside out, seemingly at a whim, can at times prove too disorienting. Taken individually, the preceding song and the reversed, Boards of Canada-style outro in the opener (“Where I’m Going”) are phenomenal, but the sensuous embrace of the vocal portion is completely lost in the gloom of the ending. By the time it sweeps over, you’ve lost the thread. This may be intentional, done in attempt to create a flowing, cinematic experience. However, it can sometimes feel like Rhodes looking at the landscape from too many angles to give us a defining image.

Rhodes’ voice is mostly saturated in echo, functioning like a vaguely human presence in an album full of disorienting instrumentals. This is a solid choice, because when he gives it space to breathe, as on highlights “Beside You” and “Intro (Santa Barbara),” he absolutely takes over a mix with emotion. The warbling auto-tune choking his voice on the former makes for a perfectly refreshing slide from high-energy trap hi-hat grooves to desperate, multi-tracked pleading, an ice-bath in the middle of the desert. The latter, released almost a year ago, unfurls a steel guitar sample before deconstructing it for the most upbeat moment on the record, a patiently funky island groove. The chorus here is as poptimist as it gets, with a confident tune that doesn’t hide, sounding like an instant summer throwback spiced with regret. Box Dreams would do well to let his pipes shine more directly. It’s no wonder that this track in particular is his most listened to; the elegant simplicity of it all demands it.

Box Dreams is an ambitious attempt to crack the divide between luxurious, space-bound beats and spare, late-night lust. It succeeds at prying open the doorway, and at times, suggests an untapped universe waiting to be exploited. Put your local sadboy on notice: it’s time to dream bigger. Much bigger.