Monday, April 2, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: THEESatisfaction - awE naturalE

By Steve Jones.

THEESatisfaction are Seattle-based Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, and awE naturalE is their debut record on Sub Pop.

With awE naturalE, THEESatisfaction provide listeners with another installment of the modern kind of strange soul music that I'm still thoroughly enjoying.  Its production actually reminds me quite a bit of last year's The Golden Age of Apocalypse from Thundercat.  There are many similar callbacks to classic funk, soul, and Motown smoothness, but they are appropriated for a 21st century sound with other beneficial quirks.  An obvious parallel must also be drawn to Shabazz Palaces, for whom THEESatisfaction provided some vocal talent on the excellent Black Up.  This record is nowhere near as nightmarish or abrasive as Black Up, mind you, but even though their approaches are different, both groups come from the same school.

This album is unequivocally one of the tightest I've heard in a long time.  It doesn't feel like a single second of its 13 tracks in 30 minutes is wasted, and that's an important point to stress.  It's tempting to attribute such a short running time to a lack of ideas from a fledgling group, but one listen to awE naturalE will dispel any such thoughts.  The record bursts with color, and its brevity comes more from an impatience to move onto the next idea rather than from any lack of them.  Of course, this lack of vamping means that songs move by too quickly for the listener to get caught up in a particularly catchy groove, and that can be a little frustrating.  I find that the album flows well enough as an entity to stymy this issue, but it can hurt the songs should they be taken out of context.

The interplay between Irons' and Harris-White's voices is consistently lovely to hear, but the album begins no less impressively with the instrumental "awE," which sets the tone for the slightly psychedelic flavor of funk to define much of the music to come.  "Earthseed" was the first track to really arrest me.  Its deliberately meandering piano melody immediately sets it apart, but the vocals compliment first with a sense of mystery before evolving into a more punctuated rap that closes the track with purpose.  The longest track is "Deeper," which is still under 4 minutes, but it locks into its groove and doesn't quit.  That also means its one of the least progressive songs on awE naturalE, but its narrative focus rescues it somewhat.  It does lead, however, into the album's funkiest track, "Sweat," which samples strings and horns to great effect.  

Shabazz Palaces member Palaceer Lazaro returns the favor by providing some verses on "God" and "Enchantruss," both of which prove to be album highlights.  The combination of ambient space and the tribal chanting of "I need to prove myself" on "Needs" creates another dark but inviting landscape.  I also can't help but love the brief foray into minimalism with "Crash," which consists of nothing but a short piano loop and no lyrics but "zero, one, zero, one."  At only a minute long, it's the kind of pleasantly experimental diversion that exemplifies this album's uniqueness.  Finally, "naturalE" closes with an unexpectedly harsh electronic beat, just further proving that awE naturalE never stops surprising.

For me, this record is a winning combination of production and style, both of which are more than inventive and captivating enough to sustain its 30 minutes.  It's easily digestible, but I do wish it were longer.  I could stay enamored with THEESatisfaction's haunting soul for much longer than a half hour, and that has led to a number of back-to-back listenings on my part.  I haven't touched the lyrical content much, mostly because I do not have a lyrics sheet in front me, but I do find it to be yet another attractive part of the album.  awE naturalE is feminist, futurist, spooky, and invigorating, and I hear quite a bit of resonance with another favorite artist of mine, Janelle Monáe.  The music may be dark and obscured, but the messages are positive.

THEESatisfaction's awE naturalE is funk for the future, and through it Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White emerge as two of the strongest voices of this year.

Score: Decent-to-Strong 8

You can listen to the album in its entirety (which is the best way to hear it) on YouTube via Sub Pop below:

(Steve Jones would very much like to make a record like this one. This may be a hopeless endeavor, but feel free to support him on Twitter at @vestenet.)

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