When I first announced the artists that would be part of my Class of 2013, I basically promised that it would be even better than my Class of 2012. You could say that I had high hopes for all of these ten artists, and much to my chagrin, they actually delivered this year. There was plenty of action to be found, and plenty of profiles raised to new heights of popularity and stardom. It’s amazing to think that not only did virtually everyone improve their stature in the music world, but about half of them released full lengths that made my Top 50 Albums of 2013 list, not to mention many others’. In short, I’m exceptionally proud of the work all of these artists did over the last year, and invite you to join me now for a quick recap of what they did across 2013.
Rhye is a group born out of mystery. The duo purposely tries to fall deep into the crevice of the unknown, choosing to let their music speak for itself rather than tossing out names and faces and back stories. Leave everything as simple and clear-cut as possible, and create your own bond with these songs. Of course, in today’s technology-heavy era, remaining anonymous isn’t something you can do for long, which is probably why a couple months before the March release of their album Woman, things started to come into focus. Rhye is Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, two guys that met in Denmark when working with the Copenhagen-based group Quadron. They became fast friends, but didn’t actually pursue a project together until they both found themselves living in Los Angeles for varying reasons. The primary cause of Hannibal’s relocation from Denmark was a woman, while Milosh is a Toronto native who went to L.A. to try and help his solo music career take flight. For two musicians who had some previous pedigree working as solo artists or in other groups, it’s fascinating that Rhye was suddenly the thing that earned them both quite a bit more attention than they were otherwise used to. It only took a couple singles (“Open” and “The Fall”) released in 2012 to get people talking and naturally curious about who was behind them. The very sensual music videos for both singles and an EP released last fall continued to build anticipation for their debut full length as well.
Perhaps the main reason Rhye has gotten so much attention since they first emerged is due to the right combination of Milosh’s vocals and ’90s R&B-style minimalist instrumentals that are very “of the moment” thanks to artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel. This is sexy music for a large collection of people who are really starting to experience their own sexual awakening. The xx have played a major role in bringing such sensuality in music to the forefront, and Rhye’s record Woman plays to that crowd perfectly with unabashed intimacy and pure, love-spiked intention. It wouldn’t work nearly as well if Milosh didn’t have the voice of an angel that’s so syrupy and smooth you might mistake it for female if you knew nothing about the duo. Comparisons to Sade have been rampant, and they’d be a lot more difficult to accept if they weren’t so spot-on. That basic androgyny has probably helped with the band’s success more than anyone realizes, because it makes the songs that much more malleable to the human ear – you’re free to interpret how these songs apply to you and your own life without gender bias getting in the way. If a guy wants to imagine a girl is singing a song like “Verse” to him or vice versa, nothing is too much of a stretch and the less you know going in the easier such things become. The lyrics are never gender specific either, nor are they sexually explicit, which only serves to fuel your own imagination to help fill in the blanks as you see best. In a case such as this, the vagaries are commendable. All you really need to enjoy this record is the capacity to love another human being, and that accounts for about 99.9% of the population.
Not that 99.9% of the population is going to engage with and get sucked into Woman. It’s not a perfect record, and there are a couple small misfires amid the excellence. “One of Those Summer Days” pretty much comes as advertised, however its beautiful and hazy drift feels out of place on an album that often has a slight groove going for it. Somehow for those 4.5 minutes everything just stops and you can envision yourself laying out by the pool on a warm, clear day as the sunlight shimmers brightly off the water. There’s no structure or hook to the track, and the saxophone solo that pops up feels just a touch softcore porn soundtrack in nature. In other words, it’s all surface beauty with no depth or substance behind it. The title track, which is saved for last, has a similar aesthetic to it. Milosh repeats the title over and over again in different tonal fluctuations and syllabic stretches while a slow and simplistic synth melody holds steadfast. Horns and strings attempt to resuscitate the staid concept, but ultimately don’t do enough to make it worth the time and effort put in.
Still, eight out of the album’s ten tracks are top notch, and a few like “The Fall,” “Open,” “Last Dance” and “Major Minor Love” get even better the more you listen to them. There’s something truly special about this record, and it’s an indefinable quality that only really grabs hold of you in the quieter or more intimate moments of your life. Put on some headphones and really focus on how these songs are being created with such spare arrangements, and you’ll quickly find yourself wrapped inside Woman‘s tender embrace. Better yet, make it the soundtrack to your next make out session and witness how effective it can be at setting the right mood. Rhye is a truly talented band with two truly talented auteurs inspired by the love permeating their own lives. It’d make you jealous of such intense passion if the songs themselves weren’t excellent companions even on a lonely night without someone to hold you close. We don’t need to know who the people are behind them, just that they’ll be there for us no matter what our desires might be. It’d be nice if more records had that quality within them.
Rhye – Open
“To make tonight’s show a more intimate experience, the artist has asked that you refrain from taking photos, talking or opening and closing the venue doors during the performance. We will also be closing the bar at the back of the venue in the next few minutes for the same reason, so please purchase any drinks you might want during the show now. Thank you.” That was the announcement made shortly before Rhye took the stage on a rainy Thursday night in April at Schubas. In case you hadn’t heard the message, there were also signs posted all over the venue that said “The artist requests no photos during tonight’s performance.” As such, there is/are no photo(s) accompanying this show review. Ironically, there are very few photos of the duo known as Rhye in existence, live or otherwise. They’re a band somewhat built on mystery, at least in the sense that they’d rather let the music speak for itself rather than bombard you with other associations to attach to it. For their live performance, the last thing you should have been doing was staring at the stage through the screen of your smartphone. That creates an invisible wall between the artist and the audience member. The goal is to devote your full attention to what’s coming out of the speakers, and it’s similarly distracting if you run to the restroom, chat with a friend or go order more drinks. Rhye make intimate, bedroom music that’s earned plenty of comparisons to Sade and The xx, and it’s difficult to achieve the intended effect if your head is somehwhere else.
So from my vantage point towards the front of the venue, everyone complied with the band’s instructions (except that one guy standing next to me, who snapped a very quick photo during the final song). Was the show better as a result? I’d say absolutely. As much as I try to respect and give all my attention to the stage, most shows I snap a few photos and might grab a drink mid-set if I’m close to the bar. With a hushed room and nobody standing in front of me with their phone or digital camera in the air, I didn’t get annoyed a single time during the full 50 minute set, which is an accomplishment. Much more accomplished however was what happened on stage. The lights were set to a minimum level, to the point where an exit sign next to the stage was the brightest thing in the room, and there were lit candles everywhere from atop amps to the stage floor. It was a wonder nobody kicked one over. Rhye is the duo of Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, but in a live setting it’s only Milosh with five backing musicians because Hannibal doesn’t tour. It made for a fascinating set up, primarily because the songs on the band’s debut album Woman are so minimalist in their construction. To have six people on stage for that ultimately meant expanding what was already there. That wound up applying to not only the overall sound, but the length of the compositions as well. “Last Dance” got a fun little trombone solo thrown in during the bridge that not only got the crowd riled up, but the rest of the band too. Milosh signaled his keyboard player to keep playing at the end of “Major Minor Love,” which he did for a bit while the rest of the band looked on amused. The strings and drums each got their own times to shine during the bridge of “Open” as well, really hammering home the point Milosh made between songs mid-set: that hearing extended or different takes on songs you’re familiar with brings them to life in new and interesting ways. It keeps the audience and the band on their toes, which is really what you want out of every live show.
Not everything about Rhye’s set worked. It felt like there was a key misstep relatively early in the set during “The Fall,” one of the band’s key singles and most upbeat tracks. What could have turned into a small dance party instead stumbled when the tempo of the song purposely slowed to a crawl for its midsection. Basically, one minute there was a good groove going, the next it was a stoic ballad, and the next the crowd was hit with smelling salts as the pace returned to normal. Why such a choice was made is a mystery, though it’s likely for the same reasons the extended jam sessions on other tracks happened. Everything else, including “3 Days,” “Shed Some Blood” and “Hunger,” were perfectly situated in the set and sounded fantastic. Because they’ve only got one album, things started to get a bit dicey towards the end. There was no opening band, which also helped give everyone the feeling like there should be so much more to go. Alas, after about 40 minutes Milosh candidly apologized to the crowd as they cheered for more, explaining that they were out of songs and were going to have to wrap things up without an encore. Technically speaking he was wrong, because the band never played “One of Those Summer Days” or the title track “Woman,” but to be fair those are also the slowest and weakest tracks on the debut album. They closed things out with the song “It’s Over,” which is actually a song off of Milosh’s 2006 solo record Meme, which I’m sure most if not all of the crowd hadn’t heard before. It was a perfectly lovely ballad, but also felt a little out of place and lacking the pure beauty and charm that the Rhye tracks have going for them.
For a show that was so restrictive/demanding in its requests for audience behavior, it’d be easy to think that you weren’t allowed to have any fun or that it might be difficult to have fun given the circumstances. It really was the band’s candor and Milosh’s moderately comedic banter between songs that put everyone more at ease and helped turn the show from stoic intimacy to playful intimacy. If you ask me, that’s the best kind of intimacy. And that voice! There were audible gasps from the crowd the moment Milosh first started to sing, because it seemed so unlikely that the voice you hear on the record could be replicated with such ease. He made it all look and sound pretty effortless, and beyond that the rest of the band would occasionally add five-part harmonies that made perfect use of the venue, the atmosphere and the quiet, attentive crowd. It’s hard to believe that this band can sound so great and so professional when they’ve only played a handful of live shows in their existence. With any luck, there will be hundreds more to come, complete with fans who understand that even music’s most intimate moments can be charming and great when performed live so long as you’re respectful and attentive of the material.
Shed Some Blood
Major Minor Love
It’s Over (Milosh cover)