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Kwes

Meantime

(Warp; US: 1 May 2012)

Kwes’s Meantime EP is a perfect soundtrack for the first sunny days of spring. The thick layers of delay and reverb that cloud these electronic soul compositions hold on like the lingering rains of winter, but all that murk can’t quite drown out the sunshine of the laid back vocal melodies, and the resilient message of hope and positivity that these songs convey.


Meantime may be Kwes’s first foray into writing and performing his own tunes, but at 24 years old, the London-based producer has already worked with a range of notable artists including Speech Debelle, the xx, and Damon Albarn. Like Albarn, and Hot Chip, whom he also re-mixed, Kwes repurposes the fundamental elements of electronic music to create his own wandering and beguiling pop songs. And his understated vocal delivery owes a debt to these artists as well, though there are also echoes of TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe in Meantime’s more expressive moments.


Even with only four songs, Meantime displays a mastery of subtle variation, achieving sonic complexity through the repetition, layering, and balance of disparate rhythms and textures, much like Kwes’s like-minded British contemporary James Blake. However, whereas Blake’s music retains a sparse, even minimalist effect, Kwes constructs a dense and expansive architecture of sound. The shifting tones and timbres that color each of these songs have an ADHD quality to them, as though Kwes couldn’t quite decide which synth patch or effect setting to go with so he just decided to use them all. But this cycle of transformation emerges as a constitutive element of his work, propelling each song into the next and providing the EP with a sense of confident and steady motion.


On the instrumental opening track “Klee”, the prominent bass line weaves a meandering melody through a thick fog of echoing synth tones, setting the tone for this brief song cycle that will balance pop sensibility with a healthy dose of spaced-out experimentation throughout. The transition into the catchy single “Bashful” is abrupt, with the bass out front again, this time in a steady, pulsing quarter time rhythm that forms the structural core of the song. In the chorus, Kwes sings, “A countenance accountable for the lack of mettle in my bones / I’m bashful, so bashful”. And by foregrounding his vulnerabilities, he draws a distinction between himself and the legion of boastful, overconfident hyper-males who populate the contemporary soul and R&B landscape (including indie blog darlings such as The Weeknd and The-Dream). Despite his avowed shyness, Kwes’s musical presence is confident and charming, and it should probably be noted that “Bashful”’s subject is a proposition to an unavailable older woman, so make of that what you will.


The real stand out among these songs, however, is the final track, “Igoyh”. It’s a seven minute stunner that opens with Kwes musing over subdued and melancholy keyboard chords that he “Could count the times / On a couple of fingers / When things weren’t wonderful”. They’re meant as words of encouragement to the object of his appeal and he goes on to offer “I mean when I say / You’re beautiful / Don’t waste your tears / On those energies / You’ve got too many years ahead of you”. Once again, it’s the bass that really holds it all together, this time in a syncopated groove that rises and falls throughout the song in volume, resonance and fuzzed-out distortion. There’s a strange and lovely balance between the various elements at play here — tiny, distant xylophones, heartbeat kick drums, soulful piano chords, and those layers upon layers of glistening electronic noise. The structure is loose and playful, with an improvisational quality that allows Kwes to explore everything that the song has to offer, and he uses that freedom to its fullest, capturing the listener fully from start to finish.


Even with that epic coda, this EP really flies by and leaves you wanting more. And if “Igoyh” is any indication of the direction that Kwes is headed, he will be an artist to watch in the future with great anticipation.

Rating:

Robert Alford is a writer and a critic who lives in Seattle. His work has appeared, most recently, in Paste Magazine, Bookforum.com and Real Change News.


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