There’s a Northwestern scene around the Audio Dregs and Fryk Beat labels (also touching States Rights, K, Holocene and others) of forward-looking electronic/indie music that takes inspiration from mainstream hip-hop, R&B, and pop. In a way, tentacles of that reached the public limelight in 2009, if somewhat invisibly, with YACHT signing to DFA for the notable See Mystery Lights, and Ratatat (half of which is Audio Dregs’ Evax) collaborating with the rapper Kid Cudi.
Californian Bobby Birdman, real name Rob Kieswetter, seems part of that crowd while also being his own freewheeling presence. His first two LPs, on Portland’s Hush Records, staged progressive soft pop-crooning of his own philosophy of life and nature over expansive, deep sounds. His EPs and live show since then have given hip-hop, especially Southern, a greater place, also getting more frenetic and varied while maintaining his calming vocal position. New Moods, his third LP, takes that path, still an exciting one. The music is fresh percussion, bass, beats, and minimalist melodic chants. His vocal approach has a pop-crooner side and a sing-song side that shares a spiritual relation to rap. Listen to the way “What You Say” resembles a rapper’s comeback anthem. He starts, “I’ve been away for a minute / And I can’t wait to begin / Unfocused and wavering / Took it in turn / Now I’m back where I started”. There’s some Vegas in his voice too. Swing and stillness become somehow not a contradiction. His singing is cool, yet through it he finds that place in the air where time slows down and nearly stands still.
Birdman’s songs have their own metaphysics of sorts, their own iconography and way of communicating. The themes seem to circle back towards imagination and the way words work, plus how slippery language is. All through he posits himself as a dreamer and seeker. The tone of “You’d Be Surprised” is “here we go, on a secret mission”. On “What You Say” he sings, “Yes I am fed up and finally through / So ditch it and burn it / And try something new”. “Truth Be Told”, which echoes Bjork’s “Human Nature”, ponders the wildness of writing. This is music as imagining, and creation as a triumphant act. “Nothing can tame me / I am victory at sea”, he proclaims with confidence on one song.
Birdman’s lyrics are filled with metaphors, riddles, wordgames, and new spins on children’s rhymes. “Bloody Mess” takes an “I Spy” type word game as part of its structure. Elsewhere, his diction does something similar. Within the wordplay, there’s also talk of love and heartbreak, of personal failures and determination. He takes us to some lovely ruminative places, often still with abstract or even absurdist lyrics. It’s not “introspective” music in any obvious way but thoroughly contemplative in tone. These include “Weighty Wait”, the a cappella “Silent But Violent”, and “Setting Sun”, which has quite a groove for his most stirring tribute to movement and rebirth and the moment, with a turn too towards mortality. This song, and New Moods in general, continually ponders the big question of direction and action: what we do, the meaning of physical movement. New Moods is a future statement but through its focus on the physical is also very now.