10. Chair Model by Chair Model
If anyone says Oklahoma doesn’t have great music, chances are that they just don’t have a taste for the more genre-specific gems that come out of this state. Give them this record, and see if it doesn’t change their mind. At a brisk eight tracks, the self-titled debut LP from OKC studio project Chair Model cuts all the fat and hits big with just over 20 minutes of hit-making bangers.
Country music nonwithstanding, this is probably the most mainstream album to hail from the Sooner State in years. Part of that has to do with the general encroachment of indie rock music in the pop radio sphere and vice versa over the past decade, which allows this bold, colorful album to bring along a few quirks without isolating listeners. “Elle Le Fait”, for instance, includes French lyrics and pitch-shifted vocals amidst its smooth, rhythmically crisp lounge grooves.
Chair Model doesn’t shoot for the low common denominator. Its accessibility comes from the basics of universally infectious rhythms, bright melodic hooks, tone-perfect performances, and contemporary mixing practices. The album’s state-of-the-art production also makes the most of the songs’ tight arrangements, showcasing their best and most unique sonic diversions while adhering to the core of the song.
Take “That’s Me”, which is a swing-style jam that could essentially coast on the strength of its beat, vocals, and sax & horn lines. It brings along plenty of other sounds, though. Synthesizers, keys, and some hazy guitar help broaden and boost the overall sound, while lyrical gaps are bridged by interjectory accents like glitchy electronics, vocal whoops, and sometimes both of those merged into one.
One example of how the mixing heightens these various additional elements can be found in the very opening to “That’s Me”, which drops a reverbed ball of distortion, then pulls it back out to emphasize the clean, spacious finger-snap beat, adorned only with a distant guitar and a minimal synth, neither of which carry a melody. Another such moment can be found in the pre-chorus, which pans a flanger sweep from right to left in the stereo mix, just to sting with a drum fill that plays back in the right channel. This audio sleight of hand stirs a sense of surprise and excitement that builds and pays off into the more lavish chorus.
Moments like this appear all over Chair Model, which is even more gratifying given how much variety is stuffed into its 20-minute ride. The album never sticks with quite the same collection of instruments from track to track, and its spread of pop music styles range from the spunky “Do It” to the dreamy “Barely Shook” to closer track “Threads”, which plays up the experimentation a hair for one of the project’s most alternative sounding numbers.
For modern pop music lovers, there really is something for everyone here, and for the broader base of music fans, there just might be more to love than one might assume. Just because something is commercial doesn’t mean it can’t be great, and Chair Model proves it on its expertly crafted, incredibly infectious debut.
Recommended tracks: “Do It” / “Elle La Fait”
9. The Lace Which Sailed and Bore Us Well Across the Epic Echo by The Allie Lauren Project
The Allie Lauren Project has never been an easy one to classify. Part solo artist and part music collective, it’s an OKC-based act that incorporates a wild assortment of sounds pulled from classical, jazz, alt rock, indie pop, soul, folk, avant-garde, and quite possibly every other genre of music as well. It’s selective in its pickings, however, which leads to a sound that is signature not in specificity but in taste.
In its earlier days, when The Allie Lauren Project was known as simply Allie Lauren (which, by the way, is not the name of its founder–that would be Lauren Nicole Clare), the music would come together from all angles and result in some of the most uninhibited leaps from sound to sound that could prove a full album experience challenging. These days, the project’s influences are better integrated, but if this latest album is any indication, the experimentation is far from over.
The Lace Which Sailed and Bore Us Well Across the Epic Echo (or simply The Epic Echo) is a relatively brief but enormously ambitious work that encompasses great swaths of emotion, diving straight into the deep, dramatic end of artistic expression. It walks a tightrope along the boundaries of popular and experimental music with powerful, concise vocals keeping a center of gravity, even moreso than the bass lines. The singing on The Epic Echo is also some of the most passionate and entrancing voice work one is bound to find anywhere. This centripetal element and stylistic balance work together to allow the album to spoon-feed avant-garde aesthetics without actually forcing the listener through the drudgery that can come with it.
Take, for instance, “Moats”. From its melodic surface, this is pretty much a vocal pop number, complete with a swing beat and tambourine. It’s catchy and light, but as the song sets in, those avant-garde elements creep into the corners. Calm synth pads start to pull apart and out of tune from one another. An underground distortion peaks into soft but gritty ringing over the second verse. It’s all blended in so well with the sweeter aspects of the song, though, that it’s the less experimental but still unusual bits that become more pronounced, bits like the track’s sickly synth line and vocal effects.
In essence, The Allie Lauren Project tends to temper its more extreme ideas to find a middle ground that brings listeners along for the adventure without crusading too far ahead of them. This is true on a broader scale, too. Other tracks like “Captain Sorrow” and “The Middle of Madness” are more overt, using unconventional structures and sparser instrumentation to let the album’s abstractions rattle more loudly. However, for each one of these, there is a cut along the lines of “Oaths” and “The Water”, both of which stick to more straightforward arrangements.
In the greater scope of the album, this can sometimes leave the album feeling like a grab bag of ideas. These ideas are wonderful, to be fair, using metaphors upon metaphors to characterize the high seas of life across a consistently insightful run of oceanic songs. Even the album art is brimming with hidden meaning–it takes more than a first glance to see that those sails are, in fact, lungs. Nonetheless, The Epic Echo‘s narrative arc is so unconventional that when the album ends on the moody “As I Am”, it feels more like a cliffhanger than a resolution. “The Water”, by comparison, is a tear-drenched showstopper that is performed and composed with such clarity and power that it would seem a more fitting closer, yet it comes in the first half of the LP. This tonal entanglement may be in music only, with the lyrics clarifying the artistic choices at work here, but that only adds to how challenging this album is.
It speaks a lot to the creative energy of The Allie Lauren Project, then, that this should be one of the best albums of 2018, which it absolutely is. It boasts some of the year’s most arresting artistic moments, and it accomplishes this through heartfelt songwriting, exceptional performances, and some seriously impressive instrumental arrangements. The Epic Echo is a record that only gets more awe-inspiring with every listen, so don’t let this one float away with the end of the year. Give it a chance, and it may echo its way into years to come.
Recommended tracks: “Captain Sorrow” / “The Water”
8. Bad Behavior by Broncho
For a Broncho record, style is everything. Whether it’s the highly inflected vocal performance, the casual but tight grooves of its minimal rock instrumentation, the spacey mixing, or the lyrics themselves, everything exists to serve Broncho’s style, which is aloof, flashy, and full of mischief.
When the substance of an artist’s work is the style itself, criticisms of “style over substance” slip right off. The tradeoff, however, is that the style had better be on-point. Following 2014’s breakout sophomore record, Just Enough Hip to Be Woman, Broncho hit a bit of a slump with the follow-up, 2016’s Double Vanity. It’s commendable for any band to try something new coming off of a hit record, but Vanity was surprisingly low on energy, which is arguably what makes the band’s music work in the first place. It was apparently enough of a misfire that whomever last edited the group’s Wikipedia page* failed to even know about it, instead erroneously calling Bad Behavior the band’s third release despite it being the fourth.
Note, though, that the Wikipedia editor did not miss the new album. That’s because Bad Behavior is a return to form and may even be Broncho’s best work to date. It hits right out of the gate on the cowbell-adorned “All Choked Up”, which starts as if someone dropped a record needle too far past the beginning. The album catches the listener off guard and doesn’t let up until the final fadeout of closer “Easy Way Out”.
The only other fadeout occurs at the end of “Sandman”, which marks the halfway point of the album and makes natural sense for vinyl listeners. For other listeners, though, it doubles as a tease. The fade lingers an unusually long time on the volume dial, beckoning for the listener to follow along. There’s nothing to trail, though, except for a guitar soloist that starts playing sloppier and more atonally as it wanders out of earshot as if to joke on those who bother to pay attention.
Additionally, this lasts about 20 seconds, which then turns the totally normal 10-second fadeout at the end of the album into a subtle subversion of a subversion. When combined with the rapidfire segues between all of the other tracks, which literally do not skip a beat, it even further emphasizes the feeling of brevity at the finish line of Bad Behavior. The album is like the adrenaline-pumping roller coaster that ends too soon and has thrill seekers going back in line to ride it again and again.
It’s no accident that brevity characterizes most of Broncho’s music, with no album clocking over 40 minutes and tracklist styles that hit and run like a punk tape. Bad Behavior doesn’t embellish and refuses studio tricks.
In complete opposition to punk, though, Broncho spells very little out in its lyricism, leaving fields of innuendo that are so blatant yet so abstract. Quips like the truly funny opening lines to “Family Values” and the many references to tongues and mouths in “Boys Got to Go” are just a few of these instances that hint at much but reveal little, and that’s not even to speak of “Undercover”. While the band has gone on record as saying this album is somehow a commentary of the bad behavior seen in modern-day news and politics, it doesn’t really have that sort of edge to it. It still sounds like the band that humorously wrote the words “I wanna put it where Kurt put it” years ago, and that’s not a bad thing.
Like it’s illustrative cover art, Bad Behavior is colorful, stylish, weird, and suggestive. It’s also an album only Broncho could make. For those looking for a new trend to latch onto, the band continues to make a strong case for its light, uptempo take on arty indie rock. Its style is simply unparalleled.
*at the time of this writing
Recommended tracks: “All Choked Up” / “Sandman”
7. Vonna Pearl by Vonna Pearl
There are plenty of elements to consider when it comes to collaborative projects, but none will make or break a joint venture like chemistry. It’s a hard to define characteristic that goes beyond musical intuition. Without it, music can feel forced, and bands can grow unstable.
Vonna Pearl, the indie folk duet turned 7-piece rock outfit helmed by OKC veterans Chelsey Cope and Taylor Johnson, has a multitude of positive aspects. From the seasoned talent of its band members to the organic creativity they find in the studio, it’s impressive to hear what everyone brings to the table. What makes it all pop, though, is chemistry, and it’s everywhere in the band’s self-titled debut.
For starters, the dual lead vocals of its core founders are relaxed and sure-footed. Amidst the sunny splashes of guitar and drums, their sweet melodies are sung in male/female unison, sometimes with harmony and sometimes without. The music is further filled out with smooth retro organ and, most strikingly, a horn section. All of it moves along at steady midtempos with the occasional spritz of reverb.
Everything about Vonna Pearl just feels right, even when it pushes the envelope. Sure, its soft-edged aesthetic goes a long way to invoking that feeling, but the album also has a fun habit of tucking away unexpected musical curios all over its songs. This is something that could translate as bothersome or insecure in the wrong hands or the wrong context. There are plenty of examples, including the glass break and scream in “Don’t Leave Me”, the sudden space age synth in “Anything”, and the aqueous chirping at the end of “Arvana”. These choices approach the experimental but land on an even rarer platform–the serendipitous.
The album’s longest and most indulgent cut, “Alone”, is no exception to this. Although there is a long stretch of instrumental clamor that pushes it to a 7-minute runtime, it belongs. There’s a bridge halfway through the song that attempts to reassure that “It’ll be ok / Another day.” It never finds a lyrical resolution, though, as the chorus doesn’t come back to complete the bridge on the other end. Instead, the music continues into its groove unaccompanied, and soon, seemingly improvised horns run amok in a clatter of cymbals and unhinged bass. Many albums would put such a singular moment toward the end of the tracklist, but “Alone” defies this by coming third in a 10-track record.
Vonna Pearl is a spectacular album that is surprising yet accessible, fresh yet identifiable. It splices together pieces from all sorts of pop, rock, and folk ideas, but ultimately, it’s not a chemistry of influences that defines Vonna Pearl. Rather, it’s a chemistry of creative energy, of personality, and of instinct that makes these sparks fly, and it’s a wonder to behold.
Recommended tracks: “Arvada” / “Anything”
6. In and Around Bethlehem, USA by Chris Lee Becker
There seems to be a few boxes to tick when putting together a popular folk singer-songwriter album. A song about the old days? Check. A song championing the working class? Check. Down-to-earth performances? Check. One need not take risks so long as there’s some thoughtful verses and natural talent in the mix. The sense of humor is optional.
Folks unfamiliar with Chris Lee Becker might hear the opening minutes of his latest album and presume it will be satisfied in checking those trusty boxes, perhaps taking its traditionalist guitar, steel pedal, and mandolin as a cue. Those expectations, however, get peeled away by song after song until they’re fully subverted in its last quarter. In and Around Bethlehem, USA doesn’t just take risks. It ups the ante.
Folks that are familiar with Becker will know that wit is an essential part of his songwriting. Though hinted at in the first couple of songs, it’s “Made of Gold” that first ensures its presence. This song plays like a photo album of family member deaths, and it’s sincerely grave at points. Some die by freak accidents while others go naturally, but they’re all remembered and given the heavenly “streets of gold” farewell.
It’s telling, then, that the song should open with mythic imagery, keeping an almost straight face as he claims, “Grandpa ran the Iditarod / And he almost died / He took a pug and nine wiener dogs / Somehow they survived.” Later, a cousin braves World War 3, and a beloved golden retriever dies to see not streets of gold, but streets of bones.
Becker’s prior album also used humor to deal with serious ideas on his last album, 2014’s Imaginary Friends. This time around, though, the negatives are more thinly veiled. This is seen most clearly through his throughts on religion, one of his signature topics. As Bethlehem progresses, Becker goes from “Stigmata”, which uses religious imagery to describe a quietly orthodox character, to “Set You Free”, which is told in the first person and is openly defiant of God himself. The humor of Becker’s songs is gradually darkened or drained out entirely as it enters its second half.
The growing forlorn tone of the record climaxes at its centerpiece, an unflinging number called “Mass”. Set to a simple acoustic phrase that plays over and over and over, Becker reads out a long list of locations where mass shootings have occurred. He does so with the formality and detachment of someone announcing names at a graduation, and he’s joined by two similarly sterile speakers who behave like translators but simply repeat the words again in English, in succession. Meanwhile, as the names stack up, an ambient distortion slowly creeps in to the music, growing in bothersomeness until it can’t be ignored any longer.
In and Around Bethlehem, USA is a requiem for many things, whether it be in times present or past. Songs like “Bethlehem, USA” and “Metaphor” pay homage to those small, forgotten southern towns that are ghosts of their former selves, mirroring that notion in the lost souls of their townspeople. Others like “Destiny” and “Stigmata” find that maybe some old traditions are best left behind. It leaves the listener caught in a place of limbo, a place like Bethlehem, which never really existed and yet feels so achingly familiar.
As for Becker’s sense of levity, it comes back again at the end of the album and even brings along some saxophone in the three-quarter time closer, “Goodnight Irene”. It isn’t here to undo the gravity of his darker tunes, but rather to do what it always does, which is to make the tragedies of life more bearable.
As far as folk singer-songwriter albums go, In and Around Bethlehem, USA does tick a lot of boxes for fans of the genre. It goes far beyond that, though, and in so doing calls into question exactly what it is that makes folk music such a comfort for so many. For an artist like Chris Lee Becker, playing within the lines would practically be dishonest. While Bethlehem is not totally uncompromising, it’s certainly stubborn, and that commitment to daring artistic integrity is what ultimately puts it a cut above the rest.
Recommended Tracks: “Mucho Trabajo” / “Mass”
5. Insomnia by Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards
The riotously talented Johnny Manchild and his band of merry twentysomethings haven’t skipped a beat since bursting onto the scene a few years ago. Even in the short span since the Big 50 last checked in with the band (and awarded 2017’s Valencia EP a #3 spot), Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards have hit numerous milestones. Among those are an acclaimed high-energy performance at OKC’s Tower Theatre as well as being selected for the official bumper music of deadCenter Film Festival, the latter of which puts the band in rare company with renowned Okie acts like JD McPherson and Deerpeople.
None of this holds a candle to the biggest milestone yet, however, and that’s Insomnia, a grandiose album that heralds Manchild as one of Oklahoma’s most inspired creatives in rock music. Here, his signature piano-fueled numbers about life’s inherent messiness are as tight and turbulent as ever, and his bandmates provide the brass and guitar robustness that makes a Bastards album. Even so, Insomnia raises the bar.
At every level, this is Manchild’s most thoughtfully arranged work to date. From its big, theatrical presentation of its sleep-deprived album concept to its intricate sonic interweaving of instruments, Insomnia is rife with the sort of detail that is not often found alongside such unabashed swagger. Sweeping string sections and woodwind textures are peppered throughout the album. There are moments that tread lounge or chamber pop territory, but each is just a corner turn away from a fistful of brash-voiced 21st Century rock ‘n roll.
It’s especially worth noting the LP’s two-track midsection that completely drops the piano and the horns for a straightforward alt rock outing. While it is one of many change-ups in the album that serves to keep the 50-minute runtime from ever going stale, it also serves another purpose. It proves that Manchild could do just fine as a four-piece rock band, but that he chooses to go the extra mile. That workmanship turns up in every corner of Insomnia.
Admittedly, Manchild’s red-faced, semi-introspective lyrics will be too self-obsessed for some, but even those not swept up in his personal tribulations can enjoy the way he presents them. By the time the album closer wraps–and leads directly back into its opening when listened to on repeat–it’s undeniable that Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards are onto something very special. The band’s debut has a wild creative energy that is energetic, theatrical, and full of good ideas, yet it’s so experly executed and thoughtfully inspired that it’s almost a freaking masterpiece. It speaks of a visionary that still has much to do and say, too, and that’s perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.
Recommended tracks: “That Doesn’t Happen” / “Deserve”
4. As a Creature of Temperature by Kauri
Featuring some of the most lush orchestrations of the year, As a Creature of Temperature is a breathtaking passage into another realm. It’s one that feels as enormous as a redwood yet as intimate as a water droplet on one of its leaves. Perhaps that’s owed in part to the flawless marriage of folk music and world music that Kauri exhibits on his masterful debut album.
Though the project has since expanded to a three-member band, Kauri was a solo artist at the time As a Creature of Temperature was created, and it gives the recordings a unique touch. Towering overdubs of reverbed vocal harmonies are one of the most consistent traits in the album, with distant falsettos watching over the lead vocals like ancestral spirits. A stacked ensemble of mostly acoustic, traditionalist instruments are in turn sweeping, percussive, and calm, depending on the shade of darkness Kauri paints into his compositions.
The songwriting is clearly personal, with pained reflections on aftermaths expressed through the sort of folk writing that isn’t wrapped in a nice, comfy bow. Rather, it grows relatable by guardedly inviting the listener in to its private sanctuary of metaphors and philosophies. As a Creature of Temperature doesn’t go for any heartstrings. It seeps to a greater depth to stir up the soul.
That’s where the decidedly organic instrumental palette comes in. Accentuated mandolins, rhythmic glockenspiels, and taiko-style drums breed an unrestful, introspective, and entirely human atmosphere. There are no electric guitars or sci-fi synthesizers, which are the shortcut many bands take to building atmosphere. In fact, there’s not any obvious sign of technology in the performances at all save for one striking moment. In “David & Walter”, there is a bridge that blatantly employs a humming bass synth, one that gives Kauri’s self-described “experimental folk” label additional credence.
As a Creature of Temperature is full of inspired energy, but it’s passed through a filter of what seems to be existentialism, if the recurring spoken word samples are any indication. The result, though, is a record that doesn’t hit all the obvious notes. Its character is found in the unpredictable ones and sometimes even in the ones that never appear at all. Kauri strikes a perfect balance of grandeur and restraint here, and that’s easier said than done. Don’t let the fact that Kauri is from Woodward, OK–that’s right, Woodward–keep this one at bay. As a Creature of Temperature is not to be missed.
Recommended tracks: “David & Walter” / “Fallen Out”
3. Born on Black Wall Street by Steph Simon
In a state where a lot of music artists jump ship to a major music city at the first sign of national popularity, hip-hop is the exception. Instead of treating Oklahoma as some relic to be swept under the rug, rappers and producers here are eager to put in the work to prove, nay remind, the world that there’s more to Oklahoma music than folk and country.
Nobody does this better than Steph Simon, and in his case, he’s out to set straight a record that dates back nearly 100 years.
His latest achievement, Born on Black Wall Street, is a multipurpose work that is designed from the ground up to entertain, educate, and inspire. Like a good deal of Simon’s lyrics here, the title is both literal and symbolic. He is literally from the area where a thriving Black Wall St. once stood in early 20th Century Tulsa, but the title also pays homage to the district as an icon of black success, one that is still birthing movements today. The parallels don’t end there.
Opening preamble “BOBWS” alone is so clever and on-message in its symbolism that it sets the bar exceptionally high for the whole album. Loose samples of jazzy keys and bass swirl with disembodied verbalizations of one of the album’s prominent themes, “You can’t burn me down.” Meanwhile, the listener slips into the shoes of Simon’s personal roots as his father’s voice cuts through the groggy mix, waking Simon up for school.
In the first 30 seconds alone, Steph Simon not only sets the tone for multiple themes to come, but outright tells the listener through symbolism to not sleep on him as he recounts the many relevent teachings of Black Wall Street’s history, all without actually uttering a verse himself. For indoctrinated folks unknowing of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, it’s a message to get woke. For those who are already on the right page, it’s a message to get moving.
Like a jolt of coffee, “Upside (Simon Sez)” picks right up into the rest of the album, kicking off as Born on Black Wall Street‘s funkiest track. It makes no secret of its Gap Band sample, which is a nod to both Tulsa music and hip-hop itself, and it’s just one of numerous samples in the album that are entirely intentional and contextual, samples that aren’t just there because they sound nice, but because they mean something. In a similar way, Simon uses lyrical and musical nostalgia as an informative tool instead of a lazy formula.
There is so much to unpack with BOBWS, from the reappropriation of “Beno Hall” to the resiliency of “Beneath the Ashes”, that it’s far too much to dive into here. Each song could be the subject of its own thinkpiece. Even the release of the album itself is a callback to Black Wall Street in a way, embodying black pride and economic retaliation by delaying its release to penny-pinching streaming platforms*, directing people instead to Simon’s website, stephxsimon.com.
Steph Simon knows the importance of his album because he knows the power of Black Wall Street, both as a historic landmark and as a cultural symbol. It’s true that representing one’s neighborhood is fundamental to hip-hop, but Simon takes it to another level for his city. Born on Black Wall Street does its muse justice and represents Tulsa in a way that’s uniquely relevent to national affairs and American ears everywhere.
*at the time of this writing
Recommended tracks: “Upside (Simon Sez) ft. J-Friday” / “Beneath the Ashes”
2. The Smartest Person in the Room by Benjamin Dean Wilson
The word idiosyncrasy exists for people like Benjamin Dean Wilson.
A relative unknown in his hometown of Tulsa, Wilson is a mustached musician and songwriter that composes long stretches of eccentric musical stories at his analog home studio for a German music label. His 2016 debut album, Small Talk, was a critical favorite with the handful of people it reached and found a small fanbase overseas. Wilson even shot a couple of videos in support of the album that combined his affinity for arthouse filmmaking and his offbeat sense of humor.
As a studio musician rather than a live one, however, Wilson seems to have remained completely off the local radar, with just a couple of vinyls in Tulsa record shops signifying his artistic presence. One might wonder, though, if there would be much point to pushing the matter. Wilson’s work is markedly far outside of the Tulsa sound and adheres to such esoteric song structures that his talents would mostly fall on deaf ears and impatient toes. Getting snatched up by an indie label in Hamburg that calls its booking wing “Howdy Partner Booking” is probably the best-case scenario.
There’s been even less buzz for The Smartest Person in the Room, Wilson’s 2018 sophomore effort, but it’s no less bold or extraordinary. With his arsenal of assorted instruments and plainspoken voice, he peels back the veneer of America’s odd underbelly to find curious characters toiling away in the privacy of their own uncertain lives. What he manages to pull from them is astounding.
These characters, which tend to embody a distinctly male point of view, are presented sometimes like caricatures at first, but as Wilson writes at length, he affords himself the luxury to extend his stories with unpredictable plot turns. As the songs of The Smartest Person in the Room each approach their fourth, sixth, or even ninth minute of runtime, they explore these characters until they are not just three-dimensional beings, but utterly unforgettable icons of comedy and tragedy.
Wilson’s music is just as unconventional as his lyrics. A general sense of whimsy permeates his colorful backdrop of piano keys, accordion, organ, soft snare hits, hand claps, synthesizer, glockenspiel, harpsichord, and at least a dozen other odds and ends. On analog tape, however, the album’s DIY acoustic feel is dominant and adds gravity to the tone of each song. This is especially important, since musical segues can flip on an instant.
Take, for instance, “Won’t Say It Again…”, which opens with a frustrated dialogue about artistic insecurities set against pervasive synth buzzes, mischievous piano, and spare guitar. As the narrator turns to a woman whose role is not yet clear, the music rolls through a couple of goofy turns at lounge music before landing square into a giant mood shift characterized by minor keys and Halloween synths. This part finds the narrator retelling a bloody encounter with a dead deer, and it gets absurdly, comically dark not just from the subject matter (which gets more horrifying from there), but from how matter-of-fact it’s presented.
If this seems like a weird, nonsensical jumble of unrelated moments, that’s because it is–at first. This all occurs before the midpoint of the 8-minute song. Amazingly, Wilson pulls everything together in the second half with, believe it or not, a bittersweet ode to lost love, albeit one that gets sullied by scorn in the end.
This is just one of the album’s six songs, too, with other characters ranging from a tired, desperate truck driver to a beloved drug dealer that’s a distant descendant of Don Giovanni. If Benjamin Dean Wilson were a writer/director of film, he’d probably be some blend of Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers.
Wilson’s music is not for everyone. It’s probably even for very few people. For those that get past the unwieldy song structures and untrained vocals, there still awaits complex, time-shifting plots, characters that border on antiheroes, and a sense of humor that is often dark and occasionally of questionable taste. Within all of it, though, is an essential truth, one that encompasses love and fear and everything human. Life at large is complicated, unpredictable, and ultimately impossible to boil down into simple songs.
Recommended tracks: “Ridgemore Hotel” / “Mr. Paranoid, Lizzy, and Her Family”
1. The Book of Eedo Vol. 3: Threedo by Adam & Kizzie
There’s new music, and then there’s new music.
Hundreds of Oklahoma albums dropped in 2018, but very few of them feel truly fresh, truly invigorated to reframe the way in which popular music is regarded. There have been plenty of good albums for dancing, good albums for driving, albums that hit nostalgia buttons, and albums that ride the modern wave. Some albums, however, reach deeper into the uniqueness of an artist to bear something that’s never been done, something that’s a contribution to the art itself while remaining a personal expression of the medium.
As a rule, creativity does not inherently beget originality, but in the exceptional case of Adam & Kizzie, it sure seems to. The OKC husband & wife duo has long denied belonging to a genre, choosing instead to invent “Eedo” as a way to describe its music. While Adam & Kizzie’s first two volumes in The Book of Eedo were more likely to combine existing genres than create new ones, the third makes such a convincing demonstration that it solidifies the term. The Book of Eedo Vol. 3: Threedo is more than a great album. It’s a career-defining one, and if there should be any justice in the world, a genre-defining one as well.
Sure, existing styles of music are traceable in Threedo. Nothing exists in a vacuum. There’s bountiful strains of gospel, jazz, and hip-hop, to name just a few. However, Adam & Kizzie breaks these pieces down to their barest of bare parts, then edits and fuses them together in unprecedented ways. In other words, the creative process behind Eedo is one part reverse engineering and one part alchemy.
This makes a lot of sense in the context of how the album was created. Adam & Kizzie went into the studio hoping to recreate their live show aesthetic, which involves a complex but efficient array of looping and pedal effects built to create a full sound using only two performers and a keyboard. The duo decided to do this by limiting every single element of the album to those live sounds with only the benefit of sampling and overdubbing. No additional instruments or performers appear on Threedo.
All of the “drums” are beatbox samples, and harmonized vocal lines make up much of the LP’s instrumental backing. Save for the occasional synthetic voice or bass line, the keyboard is also limited to piano tones. This results in a sort of post-acapella sound, one that sees the human voice not merely as a sensation in itself but as an expression towards something deeper. Think less Pentatonix and more deep-cut Bobby McFerrin.
Kizzie’s vocals are the gravitational center of Threedo, which makes sense given how prevalent a role they play in the album’s lead melodies, harmonies, and backing instrumental lines. They are full of strength and clarity, and this adds greatly to the positive, hopeful themes that appear in the songs. Love, faith, and individuality are all conveyed with conviction.
Meanwhile, Adam delivers heady raps that express more of the intricate substantiations behind the overarching beliefs. His flow is one of the most remarkable and unique sides of Threedo. It boasts flawless technicality and speed with a colorful intonation that sounds so far outside of hip-hop that it’s halfway to slam poetry. His rhythmic style turns everything it touches into mind-bending polyrhythm. Not only is his technique one of the most impressive around, but his bars blow away just about everything that’s happening in the hip-hop scene. His clever wordsmithing and boundless appetite for complex rhymes make for some of the most exciting moments in music this year.
The complexity in Adam & Kizzie’s work is also on full display in the inventive structures and harmonies that are derived from the duo’s stripped instrumentation. “Good Things” may be the most challenging, as it dances around a nearly invisible downbeat in 5/4 time with skippy jazz piano and mantra-like vocal loops. Less disorienting cuts like “It Was Almost R&B” and “Perimeter” are more relaxed and straightforward but still benefit from the duo’s eccentric touches.
Threedo is only seven tracks long, but it’s just the right length for an album that reads as a manifesto. It’s edited, focused, and concise, yet it’s far from the cold calculation of much minimalist art. Conversely, it’s warm with passion and love for the craft, for its audience, and for life, even at its most socially conscious. Adam & Kizzie are a beacon of enlightenment, and their mission is clear: elevate through art.
While the Eedo sound will surely evolve in coming years, the foundation is firmly laid with Threedo, and it’s rooted in the sort of eureka creativity of which modern classics are born. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to take a measured step back to reconsider the big picture. In 2018, it’s perspectives from artists like Adam & Kizzie that are not only welcome, but needed, so here’s a toast to more volumes of it. Long live Eedo.
Recommended tracks: “It Was Almost R&B” / “Breathless”