October 25, 2012

Adam Wray is an Aquarius. (Maybe)

We love a good narrative. An underdog story? Even better. Zodiac, nom de plume of Toronto’s Jeremy Rose, has both going for him. In 2010, Rose linked with cokey lothario Abel Tesfaye to work on a project that would become The Weeknd. They’d soon split over creative differences, but not before cutting three tracks that catapulted Tesfaye to semi-stardom. The Weeknd’s bleary drug&b went nova while Rose watched from the sidelines, receiving neither credit nor compensation for the sound he helped create. He’s back, now, on his own terms, with an EP of original compositions on Jacques Greene’s Vase imprint.

But Zodiac is more than a good origin story — the work here is promising, occasionally excellent. Taken as a whole, though, the EP is more sketchbook than statement. It’s slight, running through five tunes in 18 minutes, and inchoate, full of great ideas needing further refinement.

At this point, Rose has two types of songs in his repertoire: the linear heavy-hitter built on huge, muffled kicks, claps, and chopped vocals, and the dreamy, down-tempo abstraction.

The former leans too heavily on familiar structures, but gets by on Rose’s good ears and instincts. Even when his approach is staid, he executes well enough that you don’t mind. “So Soon We Change” illustrates this dynamic nicely. It’s a steady, build-it-up-break-it-down collage straight out of the Gold Panda playbook, comprised of a lithe guitar loop, pounding drums, harp swipes, and a shrill, warbling vocal sample. The tune succeeds by playing off listener expectations. We’ve heard enough of these songs to know how they’ll progress almost as soon as they begin, and Rose uses this to his advantage. Great dance music is built on anticipation, after all — creating tension and withholding release. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t necessarily dilute the pleasure of its arrival, but the song needs to keep moving, and this one stalls out about halfway through. Two minutes in, Rose reboots the track, but he probably should’ve just ended it there. The second half is nearly identical to the first, and it replaces a proper denouement with a fade-out that says, “I did not know how to end this track.” That doesn’t change how lovely those first two minutes, are, though — this is a dance-around-your-kitchen jam, the kind of tune that can make a morning commute feel significant.

Rose fares better with the dreamy abstractions. “Come,” with Brooklyn-based singer Jesse Boykins III, is the most successful tune here because it’s the least predictable. It’s loose and oneiric, opening with a distant female voice that, sorry, would sound right at home on a Weeknd track, cooing lines like “How long do you think it will last?” and “We could get high, you know?” Rose’s production is impressively nuanced, and “Come” showcases his attention to detail. The song is little more than layered vocals, sparse bongos, and synths run backwards, but it feels deep enough to walk around in. He places watery found sounds low in the mix, too, which serve to ground the track (actually, he does this throughout the EP to great effect). There’s a wonderful moment near the beginning of the song where Boykins and female voice slip into an unexpected call-and-response. It’s a canny twist, suggesting worlds colliding, and one of the subtle flourishes that reveal Rose’s talent.

What we have here is an EP that’s chock-full of great ideas, but not necessarily great songs. Rose is a young producer with talent in abundance — he just needs time to get his reps in the studio and find his voice. I presume his newly-inked writing deal with Paul Epworth’s Wolf Tone imprint will allow him to do precisely that.

Oh, and, prediction: in five years, no one is talking about The Weeknd, and Jeremy Rose is making great records.

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