Wednesday, January 25, 2017

album review: 'rennen' by SOHN

You know, there's something I've been thinking about ever since The Weeknd released Starboy and called out R&B artists for copying his old style... where the hell are the copycats?

Seriously, I've been covering hip-hop and R&B for the past couple of years on both the Hot 100 and the underground, and for as many people have ripped off Drake or Future pretty blatantly, The Weeknd doesn't really have the same group of imitators - mostly because his style and content have a fair amount of unique identity and flair that's harder to replicate. Sure, there have been those who have mimicked some of the content, but it's not like bleakly framed debauchery was totally foreign to the R&B charts - hell, even if you go into the darker and more experimental PBR&B acts, many of them have charted their own course - it's not like How To Dress Well or Miguel stayed in that lane with later records over the past two years.

Okay, so what about acts like SOHN? An English singer-songwriter, you could definitely make the argument with his higher crooning delivery, bleak lyrics and melancholic tone that he could be seen as in a similar lane when he dropped his debut album Tremors in 2014, arguably the peak of that sound. But going back to that album, I'm not sure how viable the comparison is - the tones SOHN chose were more blocky and electronic, inspired more by chiptune or Kanye's autotune experiments more than The Weeknd's brand of chilly gothic abrasion. Kind of a shame, really, because I didn't find Tremors interesting - I can see why people like the tonal balance and vocals, and when it did pick up more of a groove it was indeed pretty solid, but beyond that I tended to find it underwritten and meandering, decent ambient and electronic textures not really adding up to solid songs. But hey, that can happen with a debut - maybe it would feel more refined and tighter on his sophomore album Rennen, which thanks to Patreon managed to climb up the schedule. So how is it?

Honestly, after giving this a fair few listens... if this hadn't climbed up my Patreon schedule, I can almost guarantee I'd never review it. Because yes, you can make the argument this is better than Tremors - it's a little more refined and tightened, there are parts that hit a little harder with more aggressive  punch... and yet it's not all that interesting or memorable, and the parts that are probably shouldn't be. In fact, what Rennen reminded me of most immediately was a cross between Zayn's debut album and ANOHNI's Hopelessness, both released last year. Now in my opinion it's not as bad as the latter record, but that's more a factor on this being too underwritten in its ideas to really piss me off.

In fact, let's start with the writing, shall we? As you would expect from someone writing in this genre, SOHN's lyrical themes center around moody feelings of depression and helplessness in face of far larger evils, people doing whatever they can to survive and him trying to trace an unclear path. And yes, there are plenty of political allusions, from global warming on 'Conrad' to the rise of authoritarian leaders on 'Primary' that goes right to that Hitler comparison. Now to SOHN's credit, even as he falls towards bad decisions or going in the wrong way, you get the impression that by the end of the album he's going to power through the feelings of hopelessness that run through the title track and ultimately come out the better for it into a decidedly uncertain future, but note the word 'impression' - because just like his last record, Rennen feels painfully underwritten. I get for this sort of ambient R&B the idea is to say more with less, but none of the imagery and writing is all that captivating and it doesn't become more profound the more it's repeated, and that's before we get the instrumental breaks on 'Primary' and 'Harbor' that seem to bookend each half of the record and don't really seem to encapsulate the themes or mood in the instrumental tones and melodies that were chosen, which leads to an awkwardly abortive conclusion.

Granted, SOHN himself is not helping with this sort of abstraction in his vocal delivery, which is definitely frustrating. He's a good singer, don't get me wrong, and for as bafflingly out-of-place as it feels when he opens up the record with two songs with a more bluesy tone and delivery, I actually think he handles them pretty effectively. But that's more because he follow those tunes with tracks that have absolutely awful vocal production, either multi-tracking him with both higher and lower pitch-shifted vocals or drowning him in so much reverb and autotune that it completely submerges any semblance of personality. Again, I get why it's being done - he's trying to emphasize a cavernous feeling of loneliness and despair and bleak darkness - but it utterly neuters any sense of personality that SOHN might have and it renders him even less of an overall presence. And the production really doesn't help this, mostly because SOHN doesn't seem to have a good sense of subtlety to intensify this sort of atmosphere. Nearly all the percussion is pushed right to the front of the mix and feels blocky as hell - especially on 'Falling', which places a very crisp cymbal line right to the front off the bass beat that by the end of the song still ends up sounding cluttered - and when that melody does take precedence, it's this huge wall of blaring chiptune-esque synth that doesn't remotely match the reverb drenched vocals or the sharper cracks of percussion. And that's not counting tones like the watery synth against the popping mouth noises of 'Dead Wrong' that then brings in these big buzzy low tones that don't blend or fit together all that well, certainly not bringing any sense of groove or greater balance. It's one reason I actually liked the bluesier elements on 'Hard Liquor' and 'Conrad' that opened the record - the waves of hammering percussion and buzzing vocals on the former and the flattened bassy synth tones with the well-positioned backing vocals on the latter - both songs feel a little slapdash in their blending and I'd obviously prefer my blues a little more ragged and rough, but at least they have groove to them. Compared to the rest of this... well, okay, I thought the horn behind 'Still Waters' was cool, but if anything it reminded me that James Blake did something similar last year on 'Waves Know Shores' and frankly did it better.

But at the end of the day... look, I get why people like this sound, at least in principle, but this record neither surprised or interested me all that much because I can hear any of these sounds done better elsewhere. I like the bluesy elements and grooves here, but it's nothing that a half dozen other blues acts haven't done better with more texture and sharper writing. As for the electronic side, I see less of James Blake or How To Dress Well or early projects from The Weeknd and more like Zayn, or any number of artists jumping on a very commercial-friendly ambient R&B sound. I'd say this becomes background music, but with how much the beats are emphasized, it feels like its trying to bring an immediacy not matched by the vocals or content or melodies, and that leads to a weird tonal imbalance that's sadly less interesting than it sounds. Yeah, if anything the real crime here is that this record can feel really boring, netting a light 5/10 from me and only a recommendation if you need a fix in this sort of indie ambient PBR&B direction. But if you're still into that sound in 2017, you undoubtedly know countless artists who do this better, and I recommend going back to them over this.

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