[5 November 2008]
It is no surprise that Damon Aaron’s latest, the impressive Highlands, comes via Ubiquity. Although the label has not always backed gems - and what label has? - Ubiquity does always provide a more experimental, left-field take on contemporary music. And that allows listeners to get a more well-rounded experience when they throw a CD like Highlands into their car stereo or PC. It is true that there are clearly hints of commercial soul and pop throughout the album, but they are mixed with enough outside-the-musical-box ideas to keep the music fresh and interesting.
The story of Aaron’s beginnings makes sense when you hear the tunes that play throughout his sophomore effort. While growing up in Los Angeles, he joined his family to play folk and country music. But in his spare time, he messed around with synths, which are heard all over this record, and soon began writing his songs while at UC Santa Cruz, where he pursued an art degree. After that, he remained in LA to sing and rap in several groups. Aaron also continued playing guitar, which led to stints with Divine Styler and Breakestra. But, just as he had done in college, he was crafting original pieces on the side. This time around, though, he worked with percussionists to help him hone and fine-tune his style. And it was that time spent diligently learning new methods of creation that most likely spurred his ability to blend genres on Highlands, a record that is equal parts smooth R&B (the guitars and vocals) and head-nodding hip-hop (the drums), with hints of glitched electronica thrown in for good measure.
As soon as “Matinee”, the album-opener, starts with its infectious guitar licks and soulful crooning, it is safe to say that you will be instantly hooked, especially when the chorus hits. It also becomes clear that Aaron is no joke as a singer, as he sounds comfortable playing off his influences Donny Hathaway and Nick Drake, both of which he draws from throughout the album. “Fire” and “Floating” carry much of the same feeling, which could be equated to the season those of us in the Northeast are experiencing right now. There are touches of warmth here and there but the cold dominates. And the gray rain clouds on the horizon are easily characterized by the collages of electronic sounds that pop in every so often. “Fall” is another soulful track with emphasis on the plucked acoustic guitars, which are heard frequently throughout Highlands. And in the same realm is the absolutely gorgeous “Where Are You Now”, a track that might not be heavy on abstract lyricism, but it still works.
As mentioned, Aaron does not just confine his sound to an acoustic guitar and one hell of a voice. He also likes to build a noisy atmosphere to fight against his softer leanings for a handful of tracks that prove his eclecticism and talents as a songwriter. Take “Clouds”, for example, which sounds like Telefon Tel Aviv, a group Aaron has worked with, mixed with Bob Marley. “Rainy Day” and “Giving” follow in those footsteps, though they are much less brash. The only time he truly lets go of conventional structure and embraces his electronic equipment is on “It Reveals”, the equivalent of a rolling (and tiring) trip through a wavy, droning soundscape. As intriguing as his songwriting gets when he focuses on his synths, Aaron is at his best when he turns up the bass and drums. “Firstlove” is fitted with a beat that will make any hip-hop fan nod-along, though it’s smooth and sexy enough to be baby-making music. And “Better”, which has an emphasis on synths and bass, plays like a mellow drum and bass track.
Highlands’s problems do not jump out at you during your first listen. As you spin the album repeatedly, though, it tends to run together and individual tracks begin to lose their essence. That consistency might work well for the album as a whole, but a cohesive listen also needs plenty of variety. Another weakness is Aaron’s lyricism, which falls short at times and does not work as more than an avenue for him to show off his vocal skills. But those two complaints are hardly enough to weigh down an enjoyable album that seems made for the upcoming winter months.