Episodic dreariness pulses through you as smoke fills the air, the smell of room-temp japchae wafting through the dim party room, a series of throbbing beats, swaying, sweaty bodies and frisky lights mocking you as you put your head down. Indescribable fluff cushions melted caricatures of your family and loved ones, and today’s most heartbreaking melodrama repeats like an exploited weakness over and over in your mind. Booze-scented clouds roll off your tongue and fog the immaculately polished countertop you rest your head on, like a miniature rave, reflecting the callously bright overhead lights. Seductive vocals carouse your thoughts and you’re knocked out before the cold surface of the counter can conform to your body temperature. A hundred instances of body contact and unsolicited smiling transpire behind your back and the world melts around you.
TOKiMONSTA’s latest batch of succulent vibes and rousing mood food is another mouth-watering exercise in chill thrills and sweet beats, exploring Jennifer Lee’s vibrant sounds with a newfound penchant for vocal toppings. Starting as a humble protégé of the Los Angeles abstract hip-hop scene, Lee gained notoriety one release at a time as a woman with a serious ear for the craft of beats. In 2010, her debut LP, Midnight Menu, took a mellow small-hour beat template and built an album of deceptively deep and rambunctious instrumentals that evolved and carried a hefty dosage of artsy soul, and lightning struck twice with her astoundingly compact and equally competent Creature Dreams EP released in the spring of the following year on Brainfeeder. After a promising yet teasingly small collaboration with Suzi Analogue (yes, I definitely would have enjoyed to hear more of that) in 2012, Lee was beginning to tame her beast and unleash some excellent vocalized tunes, calming the wandering heart of her music in favor of some old school soul vocals. Now, here we are in 2013, with her eagerly awaited sophomore LP Half Shadows, where we see Lee trying to reach both ends of the spectrum. How well does she pull it off?
Half Shadows is, amusingly, half made up of guest-driven electronic pop tracks with the other half of the music being traditional TOKi electronic jamborees. Unlike traditional TOKi fashion, however, the instrumental portion of the album shows noticeable restraint, with album opener “The Center” showcasing this immediately and perhaps most detrimentally. The song chats onward with a smooth mid-paced beat and some sleek laptop crooning, but the punch line is noticeably absent and a climax is never reached (and it really feels like there should be one), leaving behind an opener that is neither exciting nor the best it could be. Maybe our ears are just trained to expect that sort of thing after Midnight Menu constantly peeled back new layer after new layer? The first instrumental track to deliver on this is the accurately titled “Focused Chaos,” starting from a basic shuffling rhythm and ending as a fleshed-out, colored-in picture, as if Lee is constructing everything right in front of us. Half Shadows’ more subdued nature takes a back seat when it’s necessary, primarily on the guest vocal tracks. Rolling percussion underbellies MNDR’s soaring, upbeat voice on the album’s poppiest track “Go With It,” while an equally humbled, scratchy hip-hop beat lights up the backdrop for Kool Keith’s raps on “The Force.” But when Gavin Turek, previously seen on Creature Dreams, returns on “Foolish” and “Clean Slate,” the best chemistry of all the guest vocalists makes it way for some deliciously effective examples of TOKi’s electro-soul stylings, much like how Boom did last year.
Midway through Half Shadows, after a trio of these guest-embellished songs, Lee uses her own subtler vocals as a part of the instrumental palette, and rather than leading things forward, they coax with the textured, ethereal soundscapes in a way similar to how dream pop vocals are used. That the songs don’t get quite as instrumentally crazy as Midnight Menu proves to have its ups and downs across Half Shadows. At times, the restrained feel here displays a certain maturity to Lee’s craft, as if she is no longer brainstorming and is now realizing her artistic vision, trading a larger sum of her electronic hip-hop mastery with vibrant pop songs. But, at the same time, Half Shadows feels undercooked as a whole, with nothing here being as adventurous or daring as Midnight Menu. This new approach yields a mixed bag of results, depending on your taste, but it is nonetheless disappointing to know that some of these tracks could have been truly explosive, as her expertise shows deftly on songs like MM’s “Lucid Walking.” Where before she flirted with a Cosmogramma-esque ardor, Half Shadows shows her receding in favor of something a bit more controlled, for better or worse, and some tracks are left understated because of this (“The Center” in particular is practically begging for a vocal treatment). The songs that do pull this off are a tad too few and far between, but if we’re lucky, Half Shadows as Lee’s sophomore LP is a transition album into something really ridiculously awesome, because if this album does anything for me, it’s make me really excited for her next move.
For a taste of her new sound, try:
“Go With It”
“Soul to Seoul”
For a taste of her new, old-sounding songs, try:
“Waiting for the Break of Dawn”
Stream the full album here: