Toronto crafter of graceful ambient pop goes to Thailand, focuses, makes great leap forward.
I would never have guessed it when I first heard You Make Me Feel back in 2004, but Toronto’s Mike Milosh has turned out to be one of this decade’s most consistent pleasures. Listening to his third album I’m mildly astonished that he’s been able to take his tastefully round-edged bedroom clicks-and-cuts production aesthetic and drowsy, soulful vocals this far without hitting the point of diminishing returns. Except for the sonic and compositional polish that most artists gradually add to their music as they keep at it, it seems as if the songs on iii could be interchanged with the ones on Milosh’s debut or 2006’s Meme without messing up the palette or the flow of any of the albums.
Usually I consider that sort of thing a weakness, maybe even a fatal one. I think the reason Milosh is an exception is that he’s one of the few able to actually make ambient pop. His songs follow traditional verse-chorus-verse structures but like the best ambient music demand that you either treat them as merely pleasant backgrounds or else that you listen with intense focus and they actually reward either mode of listening. Usually attempts at ambient pop either turn out music made using ambient tropes that happens to be poppy, or else pop music that’s ignorable, but Milosh manages to avoid falling into either trap.
Make no mistake, the surface impression of his music makes for inoffensive wallpaper; just relax into the sighing vocal lines, gently skittering beats, and subdued melodies. To be honest, on that level it’s hard to describe his music without sounding like I’m talking about yet another milquetoast Starbucks chill out artist. And at his worst, as on the weaker parts of the uneven but heartfelt Meme, that’s a bit what he sounds like too. But unlike that particularly dismissible brand of troubadour Milosh isn’t trying and failing to rub the heart on his sleeve in your face, and he’s graceful as opposed to mawkish. Usually he devotes so much of his energy towards creating a particular sonic environment that even a surface listen is compelling. Milosh’s music only seems anodyne when you expect more than pleasurable ambience but still aren’t quite committing to it; it can be as enveloping and comforting as a duvet if you actually start paying attention. His melodies are reticent but durable once you settle into them, and his command of a certain withdrawn, melancholy but ultimately hopeful emotional tone and atmosphere is unparalleled.
Milosh spent a year writing and recording on the island of Koh Samui off the coast of Thailand, and the sense of cultural isolation he felt and the water surrounding him both made their way into iii. Fittingly enough for an artist who admits he enjoys making sad songs sound happy and vice versa, the former thread is mostly subsumed under Milosh’s usual romantic melancholy (the winding, subtly kinetic “Remember the Good Things” sounds more like an entreaty to an ex than an effort to stave off homesickness) and the water theme surfaces in both the lyrics and the rain you can hear coming down on the room he’s recording in. As always, Milosh sings pleas for understanding, admissions of doubt, protestations of devotion, expressions of longing and wonder. But the sweet, low-key joy “The World” displays at the thought of travel, the way “Wrapped Round My Ways” evokes mid-period Massive Attack, the effortless calm of “Gentle Samui” – this is his most accomplished album, and these nine songs make up his most focused and coherent statement yet.
It turns out that reducing the number of songs per album and increasing their length was a good choice for Milosh, as iii features his most immediately memorable set of melodies yet and upon repeated listens you begin to appreciate the way each track is given sufficient room to breathe and expand (as well as how lush and rich his sonic palette has gotten). As successful as the album is as a whole, for once you could imagine “Awful Game,” say, or “Hold My Breath” working as casually sublime, unprepossessing singles. For those that have delved into his past efforts, iii is much more consistent than Milosh’s previous efforts (as enjoyable and competent as the filler on his first two albums was, it was still filler), and reflecting the experience of his year on Samui through his normal songwriting tropes and language has resulted in the most interesting and affecting set of songs yet. His last two albums were satisfying if limited companions, but with iii Milosh stakes his claim as one of the few purveyors of electronic pop that deserve to be watched.