Tuesday, July 24, 2018

album review: 'hive mind' by the internet

So groups like The Internet pose an interesting quandary for me - over the three albums they've released I've consistently noted a general upward trajectory when it comes to their quality, but they seem to be sidestepping singular elements in their sound that could have made for a great record with a little more refinement. And yes, I even include their debut Purple Naked Ladies in that category, which in terms of synth choices was legitimately ahead of their time. But frontwoman Syd hadn't really evolved as a presence behind the microphone in her delivery or her lyrics and the band didn't have a lot of focus so the record got mixed reviews at best. Then they followed it with a slightly more polished but also more conventional and neo-soul/jazz affair with Feel Good, which featured some of their best ever playing but Syd hadn't really improved and many of the songs just so happened to go on way too long.

So then fast-forward to 2015 and Ego Death, the record where The Internet started getting real critical acclaim, mostly thanks to Syd seriously stepping up in terms of songwriting and delivery - sure, Jhene Aiko had a similar delivery and overall was more compelling to me, but this was territory I liked. Unfortunately, it came with the band opting for a much more conventional R&B affair - especially in the more leaden percussion lines - and while the band had tightened things up a little bit from Feel Good the compositions didn't quite have the textures and tone for me to get on-board nearly as much as I wanted. And in the mean time, their backing crew Odd Future collapsed and while The Internet had always been more out of their orbit with each record, so I had no clue where this was going to go - it was still almost an hour long, so it didn't look like things tightened up that much, and buzz was suggesting this was more of a 'go with the flow' vibe album... which is kind of a loaded proposition because The Internet had never had a problem with this - in fact, I'd probably say my biggest issue is that they could have a tendency to fade into the background. But fine, what did we get with Hive Mind?

Honestly, it feels like another album from The Internet and very much a continuation of what we got out of Ego Death, albeit with a bit more acoustic groove... but that in and of itself is worth noting, because it feels like this is a record where The Internet has settled into a comfortable lane, for better or worse. And for me... look, it certainly can slide into a specific vibe pretty easily, but more than ever The Internet just aren't really gripping or impressing me all that much outside of scattered moments - certainly pleasant, but not exactly an act that I'd feel inclined to revisit outside of very specific settings.

Now some of this is to be expected, given the recording of this project was more scattershot - individual members of the band had embarked on solo projects in the mean time, which brought a broader cross-section of compositional ideas into the process this time around... and while this probably becomes more apparent in the lyrics, it's immediately noticeable in the structure of a few of these pieces, most notably when guitarist Steve Lacy or keyboardist Matt Martians will tack on a rap interlude or piece at the end of an otherwise mostly disconnected song... and the closest it might come to working is 'The Beat Goes On', but otherwise feels most like a snippet not strong enough for a full song. And a big part of that comes down to vocal presence - don't get me wrong, Lacy and Martians aren't bad behind the microphone, but in comparison to Syd there's no way they can capture the same charisma or synthesis with the dreamy funk/R&B vibe, which leaves a sound so heavily reliant on flow and groove hitting awkward moments. And that's even before we get to the percussion - and look, I know I might be the only one complaining about momentum or live drums on a record like this, especially when Ego Death got so much acclaim for melding programmed and live percussion, but the texture and timbre of the drums is mostly okay - my issues came in the actual drum passages themselves feeling really undercooked and spare, rarely touching some of the jazzier passages that gave some of their earlier work so much character - really, the only one that gets close is 'The Beat Goes On' and even that is stuck with Lacy and Martians fronting the entire track. But take the opening song 'Come Together', with its tasteful touches of horns and massive bass melody playing off the liquid synths and acoustic guitar... but outside of the hook, the drumming feels really underweight. And it's a similar case for 'Come Over' - sweet bassline and while the weedy guitar tone isn't really my thing - especially on the swamped out solo, and the tone comes back on 'Mood', 'Next Time', 'It Gets Better',  - it's the drums progression feels oddly stiff and lacking detail against the clunkier beat, and that's before you get the tacked-on outro from Lacy that compliments nothing! And that's before you get the stuttered, clunky snares of 'Bravo' that don't fit at all with the hints of sleigh bells, or the lockstep, blocky groove of 'Look What U Started'.

And again, maybe that's coming from me expecting funk to have a little more intensity than the languid organic rattles of 'Roll (Burbank Funk)' or the burbling sandy rollick of 'La Di Da' that remind me a bit of house, but there are definitely cuts that can lead into the acoustic R&B mold more effectively - the beat is a shade heavy but 'Stay The Night' is a great example of this, at least until we get that damp acoustic pickup for the solo, as are the richer overdubs of 'Wanna Be'. And cuts like 'Mood' have that pulsating bass groove that can overcompensate for a lot of undercooked percussion and drums, or the mid-tempo funk against Syd's really pretty multi-tracking on 'It Gets Better', which also compliments guest poet Big Rube's thicker baritone really well for his verse... impact muted by Matt Martians switching up for a much more brittle groove and tacking on his own verse at the end of the song. And again, it's not bad, but it feels out of place, especially following the overweight beat with the clicking mouth noises against the ugly synth accents on 'Next Time' that switches into the more organic scratchy trap groove and pianos of 'Humble Pie', two song pieces that don't really fit together at all! What it reflects is a more fragmented method of composition - and yet even with that, the songs can't help but feel overlong, with really only the closing cut 'Hold On' earning its extended dreamy runtime - and while I get for a vibe record hooks aren't quite as important, there is very little here that immediately grabs the ear and sticks with you, even despite really strong grooves.

And sadly, that takes us to the writing and a comparison I really can't avoid at this point: Jhene Aiko. Hell, to make this easy, let's look at Trip, her hour-and-a-half vibe album that I'm fairly certain I was the only one who really liked it - and the big reason why is because despite some deeming it just background music, pay attention to the songwriting and you realize Aiko's telling a messy story about drug abuse, processing grief, relationships pursued for all the wrong reasons, and letting go of loved ones who had passed. My point is that if you wanted to listen to it for other reasons beyond just keeping it in the background, it could fill that role and actually took some risks with how dark and harrowing it could get. The Internet... look, I like how Syd is joining Hayley Kiyoko and Syd in writing lesbian-friendly music in the modern era, but dig into the details and there's jut not much here, from her or her male counterparts. Love songs, sex jams, break-up cuts like 'Bravo' and 'Look What U Started', loose positive affirmation like 'It Gets Better'... but outside of the hesitant moments of approach for girls in which Syd's not sure are into her like 'Wanna Be' and the first half of 'Next Time/Humble Pie', and some cute details around 'Mood', it just feels underwritten and not all that striking. And that's before we get into contributions like Steve Lacy's tacked on outro on 'Come Over' - even if it's not intended to be sympathetic it still kills the vibe of the song, as does the more second half of 'Next Time/Humble Pie'.

But as a whole... look, as I said, The Internet will fill a niche with a record like this, and as many times, and while I certainly wouldn't object to hearing it, I can't help but feel like it's not taking the steps it needs to really hit a deeper well of quality. It still can feel a lot stiffer than it should, pieces drag without the stronger writing and momentum to justify it, and while I appreciate a broader wellspring of ideas, it's hard not to feel like said scattered ideas weren't as well integrated as they should have been. So as a whole... eh, solid 6/10, pick it up if you're a fan, but in terms of this brand of funk and R&B, The Internet hasn't won me over, at least not yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment