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Posted on July 3rd, 2013 (7:25 am) by Paul Rice

For most people, the names Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson elicit either a vague sense of “Yeah, they make good music, right?” or absolute, obsessive allegiance. Both wield unique voices even within their niche genres: Aesop Rock is an icon of alternative hip-hop with deep, oblique lyrics; Kimya Dawson was a recent torchbearer of the anti-folk as a frontwoman of The Moldy Peaches, who pulled off some minor mainstream exposure by soundtracking the hip 2007 comedy-drama "Juno". When we covered the news of the collaboration, the pairing was totally unexpected and pretty fun to imagine (here's a video about their origins as a duo), and the video-accompanied early singles were bizarre and promising. Now that the album's out, it's exactly what you might expect. Sort of a cartoon version of this year's categorically similar Jimmy LaValle and Mark Kozalek collaboration – singer/songwriter meets enigmatic songcrafter from a different world, strange new flavors come out in the mix.

What makes The Uncluded different is that it doesn't really work. Dawson's songs are built on straightforward chords and structures, focusing on earnest, vulnerable lyricism and a childlike simplicity. Then Aesop Rock comes barreling in with machine-gun rhymes encoded in cryptic metaphor, his flow stuttering over and around the rhythm to a mostly jarring effect, like he's rapping over a completely different song. His lyrics are just as profound and vulnerable, but if Dawson scores a 10 on the accessibility scale, Aesop Rock is about a 2. One almost has to listen through the album three times: once to casually absorb Dawson's parts, once more with intense focus to take in Aesop Rock's verses without being blindsided, and a third time to mentally assemble the disparate pieces. Dawson, for her part, is the more flexible of the two, adapting her signature style to all kinds of genre experiments and sounding pretty relaxed all the time.

If Dawson's performance is relaxed; however, her lyrics are not. Hokey Fright is thematically heavy, focusing in small, intimate strokes on broad topics like life and death, pain and hope, youth and aging. Some of the more hip-hop inspired tracks convey some intense feeling, like “Bats” and “Alligator,” the latter of paints stark, firsthand portraits of the singers' experiences with body image and pornographic sex. This intimacy gives some real heft to “Teleprompters,” the album's stunning emotional centerpiece. As Dawson sings desperate self-affirmations, like “I am beautiful / I am powerful / I am strong / I am lovable,” to herself, Aesop Rock raps about a life of depressed isolation, recalling conversations where his loved ones repeatedly invite him to get out more. “Teleprompters” is beautiful in its simplicity, and it's the perfect moment on the album where both songwriters are on the same page (which happens to be what Dawson does best), excavating their own painful human struggles with an honesty that invites the listener into a sort of intimate communion.

Of course, it's not all serious. “Superheroes” is a brief, goofy romp that features the two musicians taking turns shouting out names of sandwiches. “Organs” is probably the best song ever written about how it's a good thing to be an organ donor. Album closer “Tits Up” is a mostly meaningless party jam that's equal parts bewildering and hilarious. Hokey Fright isn't all good, either. For every song that really clicks there are another one or two that just don't take off, either puttering around a flimsy idea or failing to synthesize the two artists' styles in any enjoyable way (see “Jambi Cafe” or “The Aquarium.” Or don't.) It makes the album hard to digest in one sitting, and it's the reason Hokey Fright probably won't be on a lot of year-end lists. But there's too much music out there already. Better to have a polarized, hit-or-miss album with The Uncluded's originality than one more pretty-good album without it.

Track List:
1. Kryptonite
2. Delicate Cycle
3. TV On 10
4. Earthquake
5. Organs
6. Superheroes
7. Jambi Cafe
8. Bats
9. Scissorhands
10. Eyeball Soup
11. The Aquarium
12. Teleprompters
13. Alligator
14. Wyhuom
15. Boomerang
16. Tits up

The Uncluded - Hokey Fright
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

67 / 100
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