The boundaries between popular and alternative music have always been more than a bit hazy, and in our current musical moment, indie artists are channeling their top-40 influences into a variety of creatively twisted reinterpretations. There is the ghostly lo-fi R&B of How to Dress Well, steeped in the ’90s sounds of groups like Jodeci and Shai; buzz-worthy acts like Purity Ring and AlunaGeorge owe a considerable debt to hip-hop production innovators Timbaland and The Neptunes; and Grimes has named Mariah Carey as a formative influence on her otherworldly electronic pop compositions.
To this list of mad pop scientists, we can add Portland’s Onuinu whose Dorian Duvall combines the feel good dance grooves of Thriller-era Michael Jackson with old school rap flourishes and nods to European electronica for a sound that Duvall describes as “disco-hop”. On their debut full-length Mirror Gazer, Onuinu drenches these foundational sonics in a heavy dose of synth-noise soundscaping, and waves of echoing guitars, and it’s an approach that has lead to the project being pegged by some early listeners as chillwave/glo-fi/whatever new genre critics come up with to describe laid back and spaced out electronic indie artists. But Duvall’s smooth and confident vocal presence, as well as his talent for crafting huge sing-a-long hooks, places the best of his work more in line with the unabashedly infectious indie crossover efforts of recent years from bands like MGMT, Yeasayer or Hot Chip.
The album opens with the sprawling and elastic “Mirror Gazer”, which chugs along to the understated groove of a pulsing retro-synth bass line and subtle currents of warm electronic noise until it all coalesces into a rock solid chorus of disco rhythms and steady, driving synths. Duvall’s voice is effortlessly dynamic, drawing its inflections from decades old dance music and power pop, and sounding refreshingly strong and confident in contrast to the soft spoken, FX laden vocal work that you hear in so much contemporary electronic indie music. When he declares “We’re getting old I think I’ll just try to forget / It keeps us sick / We’re being sold I think I’ll just try to resist”, it’s a vaguely defined, yet oddly rousing call to arms that the listener just can’t help but heed.
Both “Happy Home” and “A Step in the Right Direction” are built around bass lines that sound as though they’ve been lifted from peak era Michael Jackson, but diverge from those foundations to wildly different places. “Happy Home” is all brightly chiming keyboards and gently loping guitar leads, and the staggered shuffle of the hi-hats combined with Duvall’s gently distorted, and deeply soulful vocals make it one of the greatest sing-a-long numbers on the record. It’s a song to blast in the summertime with your windows rolled down, driving slow to nowhere in particular. “A Step in the Right Direction” is an undulating synth-based discotheque banger that is transformed into something far more captivating by Duvall’s lushly layered, slowly descending vocal melody.
“Ice Palace” draws from darker sources than the rest of the album, with an insistent kick drum heart beat, neurotic patterns of electronic loops and twisted, snarling bass. Here, Duvall’s warm harmonies add contrast to the music’s industrial undertones, yet by positioning the vocals slightly lower in the mix, they function almost as another instrument rather than as song’s focal point. And on “Always Awkward”, Onuinu take it back to the old school with a tight and funky guitar loop accentuating the thick bass and huge snare hits that would sound right at home on a Heavy D & the Boyz record. It’s a lively, dance-inducing track that glistens with pure pop sheen as Duvall insists “I’m always awkward” over a reveling, deftly crafted backbeat that is anything but.
Mirror Gazer is more than a promising debut from a talented young artist, it’s one of the more fun and engaging records that I’ve heard this year.