The Lowdown: Red Hearse is a meeting of creative minds that seems pretty fail-safe. There’s Jack Antonoff, famous for his work with stars like Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde, not to mention his output with Bleachers and Fun.; producer Sounwave, whose name could be found all over the DAMN. liner notes; and singer Sam Dew, who’s written songs for ZAYN and Taylor Swift, as well as Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, and others. If you like modern mainstream music, you like at least one of these artists to some degree — even if you don’t know that it’s them behind your favorite track.
The Good: If you’ve got a half-hour free and want to put on something with a vibe, Red Hearse, the trio’s self-titled debut, is worth spinning. The respective production styles of Antonoff and Sounwave complement each other very well. They also do an expert job of not piling on the instrumentation. At the beginning of “Everybody Wants You”, Antonoff’s slow synth chords set the mood. Then, when Sounwave’s drums kick in in earnest, you really feel them.
However, Dew is frequently the star of these proceedings. He seems to have studied contemporary R&B stars like Mario, which helps his choruses achieve liftoff, such as on “Everybody Wants You” and closer “Blessin’ Me”. You can also catch some elements of Tunde Adebimpe on opener “Half Love”. Questionable lines like “There’s a line around the block to get inside your head” are salvaged thanks to Dew’s convincing delivery.
The Bad: Most of the songs on Red Hearse have at least one moment when things come together; the only exceptions are the suffocatingly syrupy “You Make It Easy” and “Born to Bleed”, which is riddled with cheesy drum machines. Unfortunately, the rest of the song feels like competence searching fruitlessly for excellence. Are Antonoff and Sounwave good producers? Absolutely. Is Dew a good singer? He most certainly is. However, that doesn’t mean the album feels like much more than just a thrown-together lark by some industry pros.
Sometimes, what’s weak about the songs isn’t what they do, but what they fail to do, and it’s often in the title. “Honey” has a chorus of “We move slow like honey,” but the chiming synth notes sound like they’re trying to rush Dew. “Violence” doesn’t show any sort of grit until the end. Does R&B need to be produced like a goregrind album? No, but there should be an understanding of how to create aural impact through textures. The emotional power is most concentrated in the choruses and Dew’s delivery, but as good as they are, they would feel even better if they had verses that didn’t just feel like formalities.
The Verdict: Red Hearse isn’t the future of R&B. It’s also not a transparent attempt to hearken back to a bygone era. It mostly confirms that these three artists are capable creators and collaborators, but it doesn’t give anything that can’t be found on better records before it.
Essential Tracks: “Half Love”