New York trio Son Lux—singer Ryan Lott, drummer Ian Chang, and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia—move easily between pop, jazz, and contemporary classical, because their dramatic, ambitious songs draw from all three. On the recent Brighter Wounds (City Slang), their craftsmanship is beyond reproach, but jazz and classical make their presence felt only as sources of harmonic complexity—and sometimes the music’s pop impulses would benefit from a shorter leash. If I’d only heard the single “Dream State,” I would’ve written the band off entirely: its wordless vocal hook is perilously similar to the dreaded “millennial whoop,” and in any case it’s so overplayed and cringe-inducing that you might peg Son Lux as opportunists who care more about sync licenses for TV commercials than they do about writing good material. If that were true—and thankfully it’s not—it’d be especially sad, because they’re killer musicians.
“Dream State” is something of an anomaly on Brighter Wounds, which has overcome my skepticism and hooked me. Here and there, a production touch or melodic gesture will set my teeth on edge, but when these songs work Son Lux remind me of artists as disparate as Xiu Xiu, Dirty Projectors, and James Blake—they conflate R&B and art-pop with psychodrama and visceral experimentation. Lott’s vocal tics—falsetto swoops, over-the-top vibrato, quasi-operatic flourishes—are clearly designed to evoke maximal emotional response, but they often use transparently artificial means to get there. He’s the eccentric pop auteur whose compositions form the heart of the trio.
Son Lux’s production embraces studio technology as an instrument in its own right. The rich arrangements fill out their palettes with help from members of New York chamber ensemble yMusic and a choir featuring the likes of Kristin Slipp, Casey Dienel, and Nina Moffitt—who blur together pop, jazz, and classical harmony. As plush as the songs can sound, though, they aren’t languid or lazy—Chang chops up his agile beats into jagged fragments and pregnant stutters. And on the sparse piano ballad “Aquatic,” little else but Nadia Sirota’s lyrical viola and some distant, unidentifiable scrapes complement Lott’s fragile singing.
My favorite songs are the ones that hijack the ripping sensuality of contemporary soul but throw all kinds of obstacles in the way of its steamy flow. On the best example, “Slowly” (embedded below), Lott drapes his shimmering falsetto over a start-stop groove that’s delicately embellished with jazz chords from Bhatia—who plays Schubas on Wednesday, April 11, in support of his terrific forthcoming solo album, Broken English (Anti-). Son Lux as a whole will be in Chicago even sooner: they perform on Thursday, March 29, at Lincoln Hall.
Booker Ervin, The In Between (Blue Note)
Iannis Xenakis, Electronic Works 2 (Mode)
Fred Frith, To Sail, to Sail (Tzadik)
Yoni Kretzmer/Jason Ajemian/Kevin Shea, Until Your Throat Is Dry (OutNow)
Amanar de Kidal, Tumastin (Sahel Sounds)