|Shlohmo - Vacation EP|
Friends of Friends, 2012
As I am currently on vacation (well, sort of: I haven't gone anywhere and I'm still doing work, I just don't have to go into campus or teach this week), this seems like an appropriate confluence of subject matter and state-of-being.
I picked up Shlohmo's Bad Vibes last year on something of a whim; a few reviews compared it to the stuff coming out on Brainfeeder these days, which was enough to get me to at least take a look (sort of like how the letters MBV in a review are almost guaranteed to get me to give something a listen), though it already felt like I was up to my eyeballs in woozy deconstructions of r'n'b and hip-hop spliced with IDM. I came to like Bad Vibes quite a bit, though--it made it onto my Albums of the Year list in the Honourable Mentions category--partly because it served as such an able foil to other albums that caught my fancy last year. It was blurred and bleary, true, but it was also quite warm and inviting. Thinking about its sound, I always come back to the word humid: rust and moss slowly accumulating over a world while thick, damp air rests on top of everything. This is in many ways the antithesis of something like the Weeknd's House of Balloons, whose music is so clean and stylish even at its blurred-est and bleariest. Nevertheless, there was a link in the way that both Shlohmo and the Weeknd took various of-the-moment signifiers and forced them into the service of distinctly personal visions (that Shlohmo recently remixed Drake's "Crew Love," a song co-written by and featuring the Weeknd, draws some attention to this shared approach).
The humidity hasn't decreased on the Vacation EP, and if the material here is not miles away from what Shlohmo was doing on Bad Vibes, there are enough new wrinkles here to keep things interesting and to suggest development. While he doesn't abandon the dying machinery sound palette that has such emotional resonance, nor the blues and r'n'b inflected guitar playing (though it's used sparingly here), Shlohmo pushes vocals to the foreground on Vacation. Whereas on Bad Vibes the vocals often sounded like they should come covered in a bedsheet with eyeholes cut out and some cheap chains to shake, here the vocals are at times more in line with what UK bass music has been doing over the past half decade and at other times a call back to turn of the millennium glitch, seemingly lifted from a volume of Clicks & Cuts. Lead-off track "The Way U Do" is in line with the former, an r'n'b vocal pitched up and disembodied, never quite able to say something, to make a connection, but present to do some of the heavy emotional (and melodic) lifting. Indeed, the foregrounded vocals of "The Way U Do" work to make it feel something like a 2012 version of "The Great Gig in the Sky," a comparison not quite as ludicrous as it might seem on the surface. "Wen Uuu," on the other hand, is in line with the kind of music Milles Plateaux used to put out, the syllables sliced, diced, and reconstructed beyond comprehension--if there is a contemporary analogue for it, "Aidy's Girl's a Computer" might come closest, though the vocals in "Wen Uuu" are clearly and recognizably human.
Beyond Shlohmo's more upfront work with vocals, though, Vacation's tempos feel quite a bit more sprightly than those found on Bad Vibes. These tempos are paired with arrangements that often feel quite busy and full (though not in a bad way) when compared with some of the more skeletal tracks on his last album. This doesn't always work out--for all its glitchy vocal work and magical backing (it sounds like an entire environment coming to life in a rainstorm and singing for you), "Wen Uuu" doesn't do a whole lot, content to unspool its way to a reverb and echo drenched retreat into the fog--but when it does, as on the second half of "The Way U Do" when the two vocal tracks merge and duet in a satisfying payoff (and one that's not far from the ground Burial explores on Kindred), Shlohmo's skill as an arranger becomes clear. The way that he constructs his tracks is quite similar to BNJMN, whose Black Square I like quite a bit.
The best track on Vacation is its final one, "Rained the Whole Time," though. Bringing back the guitars over a beat that calls to mind Disco Inferno's "Summer's Last Sound," Shlohmo largely does away with the vocals here while offering one of his most compelling productions. In the middle of the track, the song undoes itself--the drums dropping into a straight 4/4 before becoming a lone snare and then disappearing entirely--sounding like an r'n'b slow jam forced to go so slow that it comes apart at the seams. Without its beat, the song is at once weightless and impossibly heavy-limbed, a nicely disorienting effect. The reentry of the beat offers a jolt of energy and momentum before the song undoes itself once again to close, the pauses and hesitations of the beat giving way to that same lone snare and finally nothing.
Vacation is not a perfect release and at only three songs (plus some remixes on some versions), to have "Wen Uuu" feel so underwhelming is a disappointment. Nevertheless, "The Way U Do" is a strong update on the template laid out by Bad Vibes and "Rained the Whole Time" suggests just how far Shlohmo can push his sound. I wouldn't be surprised if Shlohmo makes a Cosmogramma style leap on his next full length, but given his name, modus operandi, and the tinkering on display on Vacation, Shlohmo seems more likely to take a path similar to that of Four Tet, gradually subsuming larger and larger amounts of sound under his own identity. On a slightly larger scale, this feels like one of the most obvious and fruitful cross-pollinations from Los Angeles' beat scene and the UK's post-dubstep milieu yet, connecting with Flying Lotus and Brainfeeder at the same time that it nods to Burial, James Blake, Kode9, BNJMN, and others. It might not be a tropical paradise, but you could do worse than to spend your vacation in the world conjured up by Vacation.