May 7, 2013

Music Review: "Hokey Fright" by The Uncluded


By Ian Cory

Last year there was a lot of buzz about David Byrne and St. Vincent’s collaborative record, Love This Giant. What excited people about this pairing was that the two musicians came from radically different eras of pop music and seemed to have very little surface similarity. Byrne is most well known for sinewy groove oriented pop writing, drawing heavily from funk and contemporary African music, while St. Vincent gets incredible mileage out of exploring the boundaries between raw unnerving noise and classically pleasing melodic arrangements. While Love This Giant ended up being a bit underwhelming, it did showcase how these two worlds overlapped in a variety of interesting ways and built something very natural on that ground. This type of coupling happens with some great frequency in hip-hop as well, both on a small scale (guest features on individual songs) and a large one (Watch The Throne or Killer Mike and El-P’s upcoming Run The Jewels). Here, the area of interest is how the two MC’s can play off of each on a lyrical and performance level, and also what their taste in beats have in common. Either way, these kind of collaborative projects are like catnip for music critics, allowing them to ramble on for hours comparing and contrasting the two artists, analyzing the possibility of fanbase crossover, and generally building an unreasonable hype mountain. Imagine my glee then, at seeing Hokey Fright, the joint product of Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson, land on my digital desk.

More than any duo listed above, this one seems especially odd at first glance. Dawson has made her name on playing extremely direct and lo-fi anti-folk. Aesop Rock is one of the flag bearers for a type of needlessly wordy abstract hip-hop that exploded in the early 2000’s. This dichotomy is, for the majority of Hokey Fright, not smoothed over in the least. Songs will begin as a standard Dawson tune would, an acoustic guitar, some light percussion, and a melody built on an extremely economical collection of notes. Then, with little to no warning Aesop will swing by, spit a typically knotty and impenetrable verse and vanish into the night just as quickly. Aesop Rock’s lyricism also remains incredible verbose and his idiosyncratic enunciation can make his verses come across as syllable soup, leaving Dawson to act as a sort of emotional translator. To be fair, his close vicinity to the most blunt lyricist on earth has cleared some of the haze of metaphor around Rock’s subject matter, like on “TV at 10”. And besides the discrepancy of their approach to music, Dawson and Rock do have some notable similarities. Both have startlingly deadpan senses of humor, and both find the minor details of life much more worthy of inspection than the big picture.

Hokey Fright works best when it finds a sonic landscape that can support both performers equally. While the acoustic folk arrangements work perfectly well for Kimya Dawson’s voice, Aesop Rock’s performances often end up feeling wrenched in with little concern for the underlying song. Instead, the finest moments on the album are those produced by Aesop. These songs, particularly “Bats”, “The Aquarium” and “Boomerang” all function more or less as normal hip-hop songs, but also feature similar instrumentation and melodic tendencies as Dawson’s tracks. Here, Aesop’s contributions feel both effective and necessary to the song, while Dawson is able to transform herself into a pretty competent rapper. No I am no kidding. Sure her flow lacks syncopation or swing, but her sing-songy cadence works surprisingly well over off kilter drums and droning pads, certainly better than Aesop sounds over a ukulele. The song’s goofiest moments also happen over more rap oriented songs, such as the two listing different sandwiches or cramming “Tits Up” full of the corniest 808 cowbell on earth. While I don’t doubt that the two had just as much fun making the folk songs as they did with the rap tunes, it’s the latter that comes across as actually meaningful instead of gimmicky.

The problem is that the majority of Hokey Fright falls into the former category. One or two acoustic jams, probably the opening duo and “Organs” along with the hip-hop songs could have made for an excellent EP, but instead the album is bloated up to 16 tracks. Again, I don’t doubt that Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson love all of these songs equally, but that leads us to perhaps the biggest problem with collaborative albums like this. Often they’re made for the people making them, as explorations in the creative process with a new partner. The public at large can listen in and glean some enjoyment from it, but ultimately we aren’t included in the party.

Grade: C+/B-

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