A Big Yes and a small no singer/songwriter/vibraphonist Kevin Kendrick’s official bio reads with the matter of fact tone of made-up hipster garbage. “After getting kidnapped in Colombia in 1997, Kevin Kendrick got back to the U.S. knowing one thing: Despite studying at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy and being on a full ride for classical percussion, a symphonic career was not for him.” This opening sentence is shortly followed by “After finally getting clean from heroin in 2005, Kevin moved to NYC.” But this information is repeated less smirkingly in Royal Potato Family Records’ official press materials for Mise en Abyme, so it seems that Kendrick did indeed have some harrowing times on the way to fronting an indie rock band in Brooklyn.
The two different takes on Kendrick’s life story are informative because there are moments on Mise en Abyme, the band’s third record, where the smirking indie rock hipster attitude still comes through. But there are also moments of beauty and what seems like honesty. It’s to the album’s great benefit that the honesty comes first and foremost, and the jokiness is more of an occasional spice. The album opens with the relaxed “Mise en Abime”, which begins as a waltz between piano and guitar before settling into a slow, low rock groove in standard 4/4 time. Over the next seven minutes, A Big Yes and a small no unhurriedly wander their way through the song as Kendrick sings impressionistic phrases that may or may not connect to each other. At times, distorted shoegaze-style guitar chords dominate and linger in the background. At other times, background vocals drop in with a quick “Shoo-bop, shoo-bop” and disappear. “Mise en Abime” is the album’s longest song, but it’s completely engaging and sets the stage for an album where anything goes.
This anything-goes attitude is apparent immediately, as the second song, “Don’t Pull It Out”, is a rocker dominated by a great fuzzed-out guitar tone and a big, heavy chorus. It also features excellent organ work from keyboardist Erik Deutsch and a cool bass groove from Jonti Siman. But that’s the only time the band goes all-out hard rock. The closest they get is on “Talk Too Much”, which sounds like Phish playing a power pop song. It begins with a fast organ solo that resembles circus music then settles into a medium-loud verse before cranking it up for a big, noisy, catchy chorus. The song climaxes with a fast and messy guitar solo from Jonathan Goldberger before very effectively running through the chorus a handful more times.
Kendrick gets introspective on the chorale-like “I’m Gonna Die One Time”. The title serves as the refrain, and it features rich, thickly layered harmonies. According to Kendrick, the lyrics are about the time he relapsed in 2005 after thinking he had kicked heroin. So “I’m gonna die one time / And I ain’t gonna die no more” directly addresses the despair he was feeling at that point, as do lines like, “An arm’s length of black and blue confusion” and “A red delicious bite down to the core / Then I’ll die one time, and I ain’t gonna die no more.” The simple drum beat echoes loudly throughout the song, while the shoegaze guitars effectively drift in and out as the track ebbs and flows. Similarly subdued is the band’s very successful minor key cover of “Amazing Grace”, which finds Kendrick using his vibraphone to accentuate the melancholy feeling the band establishes.
Each of Mise en Abyme‘s songs essentially tries out a different genre, or at least subgenre, and A Big Yes and a small no are successful every time. “Stranger Things” is bouncy, folky Britpop, buoyed by vibraphone chords and jaunty acoustic guitar strumming. “Enough Is Enough” goes deep into late ’90s trip-hop influenced R&B, with a hip-hop beat, laser beam synths, and flute sounds. That is also one of the jokier moments on the record, with the line “Brooklyn forever / At least until I’m priced out.” It’s funky and catchy and has a great groove. Then there’s “Photo Finish”, which goes full-on jazz. Late night lounge piano, brushed drums, thick double bass, and of course, extensive use of Kendrick’s vibraphone. A horn section even shows up in the final third of the song.
The album wraps up with a quiet acoustic folk song, “Heather Reed”, finishing with a wistful tone that also highlights just how strong Kendrick’s singing voice is. Mise en Abyme is quite an accomplishment. When bands stretch this much sonically, there’s usually a track or two that isn’t up to the same quality level. But A Big Yes and a small no succeed every time here. There isn’t a mediocre song on the album, and it’s a pleasure to listen to.