Just as Justin Vernon retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin for his debut LP as Bon Iver, Chicago-based Nick Zanca made his way up to his family’s cabin in Vermont to record Mowgli, his first LP under the name Mister Lies. While the bearded dude isolating himself in the woods to record an album of tender folk songs is a reasonably obvious concept, the cabin approach to electronic production might seem a little off. But after a few listens to Mowgli, the impact of his self-imposed quarantine becomes apparent, Zanca willfully playing the square peg to the genre conventions’ round hole.
“There were things going on with my social life that were totally interfering with the whole recording process,” Zanca explained in a recent CoS interview. “That was a good time to stop listening to electronic music. I had to stop listening to my peers for a bit.” With the over-abundance of communication and massive number of burgeoning bedroom producers, perhaps the only way to produce a song like “Ashore” is through blissful ignorance. The slow-burning intro melds clap-heavy percussion and intermittent layers of various sounds for four eerily calm minutes before the neon chainsaw synths wobble into a melody. The album’s title recalls this feral insistence, the duality of Kipling’s wild-child implicit in Zanca’s ability to turn from chaos to order on a dime.
After a few exploratory trips into the weird jungle that he discovered on his meditative musical journey, the relatively straight-ahead dance track “Align” feels like an oasis. Though still edging on the eerie, this is a track to fill the floor, the haunted house moans drifting from the back of the room to smack you in the face. Zanca twitches the handful of percussive samples, keeping the ayahuasca-fueled dance party thrumming. But this easily fades, slipping into a light rain, only to have the stumbling, ear-bouncing beat to “Lupine” form through the mist. High register squeals and low synths compete for attention until a sample of a ghostly female vocal coo shimmers its way into the fore.
Zanca’s everything-goes production style recalls a beat-focused take on the Books, samples of skronking saxophones and pitch-shifted vocal lines transitioning between sample haze and dance rhythms.While there are plenty of producers throwing unexpected samples into the mix, Mister Lies clanks and howls until the wildness fits. On the swanky “Dionysian”, he turns a once tragicomic meme into something ultimately triumphant, saving a young woman’s soulful intentions from the internet trashcan. The sub-bass bubbles and slippery synths that open the track share some retro Chicago house stylings, but as the track comes to a focused melody, it finds a seductive R&B slink. “Now the time has come for me to stand up and be true,” the vocals repeat, acting as Zanca’s arrival pronouncement.
Zanca, a playwright at Columbia College, mixes some of his own words into the tea as well. The description of “spindly elms on the edge of what once was” perfectly grounds “Canaan”, the female reading evoking both Zanca’s cabin home and his theatrical training. These sorts of spoken word pieces tend to feel indulgent on other records, but here it threads into the Mister Lies tapestry.
Late in the disc, “Hounded” features the only guest vocalist on the album, Exitmusic’s Aleksa Palladino. Over an entrancing electro-pop bed, Palladino’s delivery matches the drama of “Canaan”, her howls echoing both the wolf on the cover and the wolf-child of the song’s title. The themes and imagery on Mowgli are articulated and tied together with an intense focus and surprising maturity — the kind of drive that apparently comes from isolated study of the inner self. The album closes with a sample of Chicago’s blue line train, announcing his return to the city from his isolation, but also instilling the question: “Where is Mister Lies headed next?”
Essential Tracks: “Dionysian”, “Ashore”, and “Hounded”