June 28, 2013

Max Bell something something something.

I wrote about Oakland’s Bells Atlas and their self-titled EP back in April. The EP’s been in constant rotation for me ever since. That was until I listened to their also self-titled LP, released June 18 via the group’s Bandcamp.

At eleven tracks, it might be the best, and most compact afro-pop/soul album out. I’ve probably said it before, but Bells Atlas is closest to what you would get if you crossed the tUnE-yArDs with Erykah Badu. There are plenty of great loops, harmonies, overlays, etc., in addition to deep pockets of meditative groove.

If you’ve listened to Bells Atlas’ EP, then you have a good idea of what the LP sounds like. EP songs “Loving You Down,” “Incessant Noise,” and “Video Star” are all here. Though it would’ve been nice to get eleven entirely new, never before heard songs, the aforementioned repeats sound better than ever. And “Incessant Noise,” both lyrically and sonically, remains one of my favorite tracks. It’s the near perfect balance of lead vocalist Sandra Lawson-Ndu’s solid lyrics and her more free form humming/scatting.

Though she’s a decent songwriter, Lawson-Ndu’s voice almost always matters most, whether she’s singing anything intelligible or not. It’s tracks like “Rain” where she really shines. Her laid-back, almost lilting voice is near hypnotic over the driving backbeat and the jingling guitar riff. It’s a deceptively mellow cut that builds like the best Fela Kuti jams, albeit much shorter and without the expansiveness afforded to a band the size Kuti usually worked with.

Despite all I’ve said above, the record isn’t flawless—“Untitled” and “Collecterlude” should’ve either been expanded upon or excised completely. Nor does it reinvent the wheel. That’s not to say its overly derivative or that isn’t a good album—it feels new, and is very good. The record also reveals a lot of promise for the band’s future work.

When Lawson-Ndu and bassist Doug Stewart—he sounds like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James meets Fleet Foxes’s Robin Pecknold,—trade vocals on the more pop-inclined “Capable People,” you get the sense the group hasn’t nearly explored all they’re capable of pulling off.  With so many layers to each song, you can go back over them again and again, latching onto some part you haven’t yet fully appreciated.

Above all though, there’s something to be said for the energy and confidence of this project, both of which carry over from one track to the next. It’s as if all the band’s members had to get this out as fast as possible, as if they had clear vision for the LP and did their best to make the music they heard in their heads before they lost a beat.

There’s never any way to tell who will do what in the future, but for now it looks like Bells Atlas might have the coordinates for some potentially fantastic music.

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