Let us be clear from the beginning: The Moon Rang Like a Bell, Hundred Waters’ 2014 sophomore LP and their first with Skrillex’s OWSLA label, was one of the best and most underappreciated gems of that year. While the Gainesville, Florida band’s 2012 debut was an intriguing if fussy thesis statement on folktronica, its follow-up viscerally, even harrowingly deepened their artistry. Songs like “Murmurs” and “Xtalk” delicately disassembled dance-pop conventions, warping them with spectral electronics, ambient passages, and Nicole Miglis’s hushed, forlorn vocals. The album evoked nothing if not the scariest, most dissonant corners of the human mind, guiding the listener through an uncanny plane suspended between the foreign and the familiar.
The Moon Rang Like a Bell struck a very particular aesthetic balance, and it was never one that would be easily replicated. And for better or worse, Hundred Waters don’t attempt to do so at all with their third LP, Communicating. The band’s latest effort is as different in tone from their previous releases as Hundred Waters and Moon were from each other. Describing these differences succinctly can be tricky, however, because the new album also sounds unsure of what it is.
At one end are songs like “Particle”, a slightly different version of which was released earlier this year on the Currency EP. The updated cut is a bit more spacious and includes an additional verse, but everything else remains more or less identical. The track finds Hundred Waters trying on a summery, indie-EDM sound, like their answer to Skrillex and Diplo’s “Where are Ü Now”.
“Particle” may be among the most commercial releases we’ve heard from Hundred Waters yet, but it also represents the better end of Communicating. After the house-inflected “Wave to Anchor” –which, with its nervous jabs of piano and massive coda, is the actual best song on here — the album assumes a different identity entirely. “Prison Guard” and “Parade” usher in what might be termed the record’s jazz lounge section, which amounts to the next five songs or so.
These cuts are by no means bad. Slow, impressionistic, piano-driven numbers, they are reminiscent of Tidal-era Fiona Apple songs like “Sullen Girl” and “Never Is a Promise”. Perhaps less charitably, they might also be compared to Norah Jones. More often than not, songs like “Parade” are pleasant enough to listen to but do little to hold one’s attention, even when one is actively trying to pay attention to them. To its credit, “At Home & In My Head” accelerates the pulse a little bit midway through the record, providing a more experimental take on the ballad format. “Come home to me,” Miglis pleads over urgent and complex instrumentation, rendering this domestic impulse a shade more nuanced.
At times Hundred Waters add electronic flourishes to their compositions, like the abrasive noise that interrupts “Firelight” or the operatic samples on “Re:”, but these are mostly cosmetic, rarely informing the song structures themselves. Even when the band veers back toward pure electronics, results can be varied. The title track finds Miglis repeating the question, “Are we communicating?” into abstraction, while an overlay of Auto-Tuned vocals croons like something from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak. While “Communicating” succeeds through its vision and ambition, the inert “Fingers”, meanwhile, sounds like little more than a mediocre Braids song.
Near the end of Communicating we find the lead single “Blanket Me”, the most emotionally naked piece here. The track does its best to unify the disparate threads running through the album, encompassing both vulnerable balladry and grand electronic swells. Miglis delivers her strongest performance of the record, in both her torn, raspy vocals and her intricate, Tori Amos-esque piano-playing. That said, the central metaphor of another person being one’s “blanket” feels a little undeveloped, a little too easy, and it slightly diminishes the song’s impact.
Communicating, in short, is confusing, and maybe a bit confused itself. It’s certainly possible that fans of The Moon Rang Like a Bell will fall in love with this album as well, but if they do, it will surely be for an entirely different reason. Hundred Waters’ talent is apparent throughout the new record, but Communicating lacks the thematic and sonic cohesion that its predecessor embodied so fully. The result is an album with many appealing parts, but a core that feels unstable or even non-existent.