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Big Black Delta – Trágame Tierra

on April 21, 2016, 12:00am
C
Release Date
April 22, 2016
Label
Masters of Bates
Formats
digital, vinyl, cd
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In the music biz, there is no escaping your past. In some cases, that’s a good thing; artists regularly flaunt past triumphs when promoting new projects. It can also be a detriment — perhaps there’s a reason JC Chasez’s solo career never took off after NSYNC (aside from not actually being Justin Timberlake.) For Jonathan Bates, though, it’s a mixed blessing. His work as the frontman of indie rock band Mellowdrone and his various collaborations with M83’s Anthony Gonzalez have elevated the profile of Bates’ solo project, Big Black Delta. It’s also left an indelible sense of Bates’ aesthetic as a musician — one that is either lo-fi or deeply understated, where a big romantic heart beats at the center of all that electronic noise.

Only BBD’s latest album, Trágame Tierra, lacks some of that heart. And in its place is something that feels alive, but ultimately lacks vital elements for sustained emotional impact. That’s not to say that Bates is some soulless monster. His work with Mellowdrone, which lands more on the indie rock spectrum, is full of quiet, contemplative emotion. Though few, there are some moments on this LP where he displays a robust sense of that emotionality.

In “Let’s Go Home”, it’s tough to tell what’s more manic and encompassing: the typhoon-sized surge of synths and handclap rhythms or Bates’ lovesick wailing. Even if he’s not saying anything immediately insightful or relevant, as is the case with “Steer the Canyon”, Bates’ croon does well with understated suaveness. At the same time, his voice is occasionally an issue. Bates’ mission for this project is to be big, and that includes vocals with a swagger not unlike some Millennial Elvis Presley — only to reach those heights, Bates basically becomes a caricature, and that hurts his ability to connect in any sort of meaningful fashion.

“It’s OK” is Bates’ sugary synthpop ode to underdogs everywhere, but his tone, that rumbling whisper, falls short of lasting sincerity. “Well My Heart” has similar issues, but is far more revealing. Bates’ formula is clearest on this track: loads of synths plus huge rhythms and heaps of ‘80s cheese equals success. But dropping fundamental insights like “Well my heart, she is a-melting” atop all that noise just makes any declaration seem like a desperate shout for attention.

Luckily, it’s never the music that’s problematic — well, aside from the closing title track, 10 minutes of ambient fuzz that would be a detriment if it didn’t feel so superfluous. It’s easy to get caught up in laser-colored tracks like “Let’s Go Home”. And while “Well My Heart” might miss out contextually, it’s viscerally exciting. “Kid Icarus”, though, is a true highlight, thanks to churning synths and percussion from some carnival funhouse. On that track, Bates manages to be equal parts intimidating, alluring, and life-affirming. “Strange Cakes”, meanwhile, offers a tasty cultural gumbo of doo-wop, soul, country twang, and synthpop minimalism.

Bates’ musical chops are essential to those moments when he plucks the heartstrings with a few simple gestures. The man knows what it means to stir all kinds of thoughts and feelings in a listener. But his vocal performance of that faculty is lacking, leaving a sizable gap between what’s presented and the emotions that should permeate that.

At times it seems the missing piece is a confident vocal presence, as highlighted by “RCVR” and “Bitten by the Apple”, which feature ‘80s pop queen Debbie Gibson and Kimbra, respectively. The vocal goddesses’ performances totally sell every ounce of emotion. The former is especially affecting, a relic from the new wave glory days, what should be a huge moment in the album and Bates’ career. Except Bates sounds separate from Gibbs; their aural love affair falls flat. Bates will have to soldier on behind Big Black Delta, and hopefully with more time and experience he can break through and deliver the kind of emotional overtures he’s only just hinted at.

Essential Tracks: “Kid Icarus”, “Let’s Go Home”, and “RCVR”

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