DIY folk singer/self-help guru Kimya Dawson and word-heavy rapper/surrealist Aesop Rock might seem like unlikely partners, but it makes a certain kind of sense. In their respective careers both have served as voices for the underheard – the abused, bullied, dead. Both are eccentrics, with their own unusual vocal delivery. Both are OK with rough edges in their music – with joke songs, with songs that have an aura of work-in-progress. Both have an affinity for childhood as a theme. They’ve also both worked, in small ways, with John Darnielle, our era’s other great voice for the outcasts and the maltreated.
The two worked well together on Aesop Rock’s Skelethon (2012) and on parts of Dawson’s erratic Thunder Thighs (2011). The worst parts of the latter album came when Dawson tried to emulate Aesop (that is, to rap), instead of doing what comes natural to her. Thankfully, the basic idea behind the Uncluded’s debut album Hokey Fright seems to have been that they should each do what they’re used to doing. The intersection between the two sounds more natural than you might expect.
The juxtaposition in the first single, and second track, “Delicate Cycle” is a good example of how the pairing can feel exactly right, naturally odd. They each do exactly what they’ve always done, as well as they ever have, and fit those two approaches together into one approach that feels misfit and comfortable at the same time. Aesop Rock rhymes about sending out organs to people and Dawson sings about growing up in a laundromat, and the two topics seem of the same piece, and then they come together on the chorus (“my whole life is a delicate cycle”). There’s a moment in the song that perfectly portrays how each is on top of her/his game, being perfectly themselves. He rhymes, “The last frame silhouetted by the sun was an airmail stamp on a still warm tongue”, and then she sings, “I was 26 years old the first time I lived in a house with a washer and dryer in it / And that’s the year I bottomed out”. The lyrics and delivery are prototypical them, seemingly at odds with each other, but not at all.
They are similarly in sync on “Organs”, an ode to organ transplants. Its sense of caring for others permeates “Jambi Café”, a song about taking someone out for food as an act of helping them heal. The song, like several on the album, is from the perspective of children, or more precisely of adults remembering what it was like to be a child. The song contains some especially memorable evocations of tasting sour or hot candies for the first time. Dawson, as per usual, ties specific, visceral details to the innermost of complicated feelings. “It’s the first time that this tongue of mine has licked a fireball”, she sings, “I close my eyes and feel the burn and say ‘yeah, bring it on!’ / I feel weak but I’m trying to prove to myself that I’m strong.”
That sense of vulnerability, and the analysis of it, is key to her music, and to Aesop Rock’s, though with him it’s harder to grasp at first beneath words that appear cryptic and high-octane. The idea of opening up—about the marks that childhood leaves on adults; about the deep sense of loss and conflicting feelings you get upon the death of a friend; about the strangeness of sex; about the difficulty in maintaining self-confidence even when you preach the value of it to others – is at the heart of the album, along with the sense of community that comes from collaboration with people from different walks of life.
The album sometimes feels like a Kimya Dawson album with Aesop Rock gracefully inserted, and sometimes feels like an Aesop Rock album with Kimya Dawson more daringly inserted, but they’re beautifully on the same page even when it doesn’t seem like it. Actually they temper some repetitive qualities of their individual albums, for the sake of an unusual balance. I can think of few collaborations that seemed this odd on paper and ended up sounding this fantastic. Songs that at first feel like strange hybrids end up being cohesive, multi-faceted dialogues on a particular topic – on bouncing from place to place, phase of life to phase of life (“Boomerang”) or trying to psych yourself up to face the world (“Teleprompters”). Childhood and biology – and the emotions and mysteries tied up with each – are dominant themes. There are multiple appearances by amphibians, toys, food, and death.
The shock of an unexpected loss is central to the plane-crash tale “TV On 10”. One hook of “Earthquake” is “It’s a loss that I can’t comprehend.” One of the album’s most gut-wrenching, memorably defiant tracks centers on mourning—“Bats”, where they stand on a bridge trying to conjure up a bat for each person they know who has died. Over nearly seven minutes the song moves from the shock of death to the memory of the loss, towards the awesomeness of the departed friends and the awesomeness of healing, described by Dawson as unexpected gifts, “like love and hugs and songs and rage / And the keys that you needed to unlock your heart’s cage / The ability to put the pen back to the page / The heat beneath your feet to propel you on stage / The beat that completes your shit these days.”
Finding that beat, the one that heals, is a major part of the mission here. As the album moves forward, the number of moments, musical and lyrical, that sneak up on you and tear you apart increases. Yet this is a fun lark, too, an experiment in doing things differently to see where it gets you. Remember, “amateur” means doing something for the love of it (like Kanye West in the New York Times recently: “I’m forever the 5-year-old of something”). This is why the album gets ragtag at times, in their shout-outs to sandwiches (“Superheroes”), their prank phone call song (“WYHUOM”, as in “Why you hang up on me?”) and the final track “Tits Up”, their kind of hardcore anthem. You can’t begrudge them their fun. Perfection is not what they’re seeking. Ragged edges is the point. Their songs are all about those moments where you feel on the edge of something, delicate—where you’re cut down to your rawest form, where life surprises you and takes you for a ride. As they say, “yeah, bring it on!”