I must admit to being a little perplexed by Hundred Waters. I try to image Skrillex, dubstep (bro-step or electro, if you prefer) crossover artist de jour scouting for artists for his new OWSLA label and settling on a Florida five-piece who specialize in a rather inaccessible form of experimental lounge electronica. It’s far outside the realm of the Ultra festival and though many of the melodies, samples and pads that make up the record are electronically generated, it’s oblivious to the dance floor, preferring a sort of artistic self-indulgence. The arrangements are complex and seem to walk down a windy experimental jazz path from the outset. So why would you sign an artist like that if your own success was largely due to your adoption of the latest trends in EDM?
The album is at its best and most memorable in the stripped down vocal melodies of Nicole Miglis, most prominently on display in “Caverns”. She sings “It seemed to happen so softly…” so gently and yet so up front in the mix that you’d swear she moved uncomfortably into your personal space between breaths. Unfortunately after short bursts of moments like this, the songs never seem to play on those strengths, preferring instead to just get increasingly askew. There is also a moment near the end of that track where some full-on drum breaks stretch in to lend some staying power. But they eventually launch into overwrought, thickly layered harmonies and looping instrumentation without aim. This turns out to be the overall style of the album—inaccessible at the best of times but somehow appealing on follow-up listens, if only for the crystal clear production.
In that way it follows in the footsteps of Bon Iver’s second record, which may be the reason Sonny Moore saw an opportunity in signing Hundred Waters as OWSLA’s first indie music act. Unlike Bon Iver’s record, however, there’s not a lot of arc to these stories. We never seem to come home to a hook. It staggers from the path far too frequently, never quite landing on anything that hooks you. It’s all challenge and no give. Frequent comparisons to Bjork are understandable and that fact alone may have made it seem like a good bet for indie success. Certainly a tour with hipster darlings The XX this spring will also help to grease the wheels of stardom. But none of that really speaks to the quality of the record as a listening experience.
“Sonnet” can be played repeatedly and it really does get better with each listen, but its appeal is more curio than accessibility. With verses which fall gently like leaves through a very subtle groove, I found myself switching to “random” on repeat listens in the hope that maybe, out of order, it would feel like a stronger record. “Boreal”, the focus of an upcoming remix release, is perhaps as close as they come to something accessible, but even that languishes midway through when the vocals lock in with the instrument notes. It goes from warm and inviting to tiresome very quickly. The same vocal strengths we saw elsewhere drag the track down here. The effect makes the song feel more repetitive than it actually is.
Track six is the song titled “... - - - …” which, if you’ve never been a Boy/Girl Scout, translates to “S.O.S.”, the universal call for help. By the time you arrive at “Wunderboom”, you’re going to need it. “Wonderboom” is the weird girl, dancing by herself at the subway station while her boyfriend slaps his bongo oblivious to any overall rhythmic goals in the performance. The vocals are abstract, delivered in a package of voice-as-instrument oddities and wince-inducing contrived cuteness as Miglis eeks out the phrase “Wunderboom Tree”. This will undoubtedly be a divisive track on the album, in which fans will see a bright star of uplifting positive vibes while the less enthusiastic listeners will give it the gas face before quietly banishing it to the bit bucket and trying to forget the transgression. It’s a low point.
“Theia” may be the most indie-rock sound on the record. A hopeful jazz bassline plucks out a backbone while the vocals fit nicely into a familiar pop song structure. The pacing is far too slow to groove to but I can definitely see it being a choice cut for mixtapes. “Are/Or” mixes glitchy percussion with guitar picking—something which should work as well here as it did for Lemon Jelly so many years ago. But it doesn’t.
There’s a lot of talent here and a lot of interesting arrangements, but nothing so interesting to me that I got excited about or particularly interested in the record. The album enters like an unwelcome breeze, unsettling a few things and freshening the environment for a moment, but when it’s gone you don’t necessarily miss it. I found myself eager to put on something more engaging—something with a little hook. There’s always a time and a place for mellow abstractions in music, of course, and I’ll definitely listen to at least “Sonnet” a few more times; but in the end I thought that, even with those moments, Hundred Waters’ appeal flutters away as quickly as its melodies.