Sunday, March 10, 2019

album review: 'stay tuned!' by dominique fils-aimé

I was preparing for this to be a difficult review.

And at first that might not make a lot of sense: sure, another little-known artist that I found off Bandcamp, but the ones I often choose to cover have colour and personality that leap off the page and deserve more attention... but Dominique Fils-Aimé was different. For one, instead of a swathe of indie rock, we're dealing with tones that owe a fair bit more to R&B and jazz and explicitly rely on a brand of minimalism in their arrangements that are tasteful and mature... but occasionally can come across as a little too understated and classy for their own good, the sort of mature music folks tend to wind up appreciating more than outright loving. Now that's not saying I didn't like her debut album Nameless from early 2018 - spare but potent as all hell thanks to her striking vocals and subtle, textured grooves, it was a short but rewarding listen - but I was hoping her follow-up here would amp things up just a bit, add a little more texture, tension, and richness to match the vocal arrangements that were such a terrific highlight. So alright, what did we find on Stay Tuned!?

Honestly, this is the sort of low-key but generally rewarding listen I've gone back to fairly regularly over the past few weeks, and while I don't want to directly compare this project to that of Solange, while there are some similarities in terms of theme and flow, there's a greater backbone and sense of cohesive structure to Stay Tuned! I really appreciate. Now I'd struggle to quite call this excellent - like with When I Get Home I think there's an element of emotional resonance to which its target audience will pick up much more strongly than I will - but the fact that I've been so willing to come back to this proves there is something here, and it definitely deserves more attention... probably earlier than this review, if we're being brutally honest.

Now in terms of production and composition, Stay Tuned! is the sort of album that is all about subtle growth, nothing too dramatic or sudden. The spare bass grooves and textured percussion are tighter and a little more kinetic and tense, and there are a few more moments that show more instrumental diversity, but the reason you're going to come to this project is Dominique Fils-Aimé herself. And I won't mince words: if you have a project this minimalist and you're not primarily reliant on atmosphere, the vocal arrangements are paramount, and they're easily the biggest selling point of this project - never too loud or over-sold or garish, instead hitting the balance between reserved and raw that was exactly where I wanted to see her progress, with a ton of real poise and serious pipes. Now that being said, this is a very gradual evolution, and if you're stuck thinking that this sort of album is almost too reserved and low-key like her debut... well, I get why - we'll get to the lyrical content in a moment, but for as much tension can be built, there's not a moment of clear release, and it's hard to avoid the feeling even down to the project's title that by the end we're still going to be wanting more. Now on some level that makes sense: this brand of jazz-inspired R&B is all about tension and the slow growth of organic passion... but I do think this album should at least have one or two points that truly explode, especially given she has the pipes for it - well, I guess 'Gun Burial' and 'Some Body' gets close and it's absolutely a highlight, but you get my point. Instead it pivots to a few moments of smoother R&B and gospel which certainly sound fine, but given the minimal accompaniment, I wouldn't be surprised if you're heard something similar or you're not quite as wowed. That said, if you're not gripped by the vocals there are some great production flourishes on this project: the creeping low-end across the subtle bass and percussion on 'Where there is smoke', the smoky organic simmer on 'There is probably Fire' that plays off the horns and piano remarkably well - a similar formula that just kills on 'Some Body' - the woodwinds ratcheting off the low end on 'Sun Rise', and that's before we get the post-dubstep warping atmosphere of 'Free Dom' that comes out of nowhere but actually is just understated enough to work! But what I also admire about this project is how on a compositional level, we can still get songs like 'Revolution Serenade' and 'Joy River' that take obvious cues from vintage soul and gospel, but are just stripped back and poised enough for Fils-Aimé to make them her own.

But a big part of this comes through in the content as well, most of which has been described as exploring the sociopolitical undercurrent and upheaval that came through the 60s in black culture... but what gets interesting is how the interpretation is intentionally more abstract. You'll absolutely get references to that time period - '9LRR' is the most obvious - but Fils-Aimé is much more interested in the emotional undercurrent of that time period and its parallels today, specifically in finding the mantras and core to stir the soul to the cause, well aware that the most complex problem is often getting people to turn out. And while my personal preference might be for a little more detail, I did like the subtext that infuses a lot of this material, how the first quarter of the album is a slow-release of emotions that demand an outlet, and it allows 'Gun Burial' to be the kissoff for those that would constraint black femininity... but there's tenderness as well, because for as much as 'Big Man Do Cry' is the continuation of that arc, it also highlights the systemic issues in the second verse that inhibit real vulnerability and emotional growth. I will say that for as much as I like 'Some Body', I think it might have worked a little better earlier in the tracklist, even if I do find it interesting how much she gives personhood to the revolution and cause ahead as that 'other' - and on 'Revolution Serenade' highlights there is danger in that pursuit. And while as a reference point it might feel obvious, I did like 'Free Dom' highlighting those internal struggles to take agency for what might come ahead. Again, I'm not quite crazy about it ends - feels a little abortive, and the co-option of that language might deserve a more developed song - but that's a minor quibble overall.

And while I've got a few other small points of contention - 'Magic Whistle' feels kind of underweight and unnecessary in the tracklist, and again, I'd love to see what Fils-Aimé would do with a little more edge and focus on defined hooks - I came around to really liking this album, even if, again, I'm far from the primary audience and it's not really for me - which again, is absolutely okay! But at the same time, it's a brisk slice of spare jazz, R&B, and soul that's extremely easy to respect and appreciate and one that has consistently grown on me - just the vocal arrangements have pulled me back again and again. And as such.... yeah, an extremely light 8/10 and definitely recommended. Sensual and smart and very promising, I think Dominique Fils-Aimé deserves a lot of attention - check this out!

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