Although few things released by Los Angeles effervescent beat-maker Tokimonsta (real name Jennifer Lee) resembles a live recording, her mixture of organic and future-minded soundscapes features a quirky realism that’s surprisingly relatable. The title of her second full-length Half Shadows (out April 9th on Ultra Records) emphasizes the aforementioned duality apparent with her sound. She has gone on record to say the title references a book by Haruki Murakami titled “Kafka on the Shore,” describing it as “It's the idea that people walk around with light shadows because they're half in the spiritual world and half in reality. Some part of them isn't here. That really resonated with me." It resonated with this record too: a narcotic, detached haze surrounds each song, and the tracks are divided between exercises in earthy, bizarre beats and somber, haunted atmospheres. While not every experimentation stands distinct from the others, Half Shadows serves as a fascinating and enticing record of Tokimonsta’s progression from mood-setting beats to a new production-minded, mystical R&B.
Tokimonsta has never shied away from the inclusion of vocalists into her soundscapes (the sultry Gavin Turek remains a mainstay), yet Half Shadows features no less than five guests and the surprise of her own vocals on a number of tracks. Miss Turek shows up on two tracks placed right next to each other: “Clean State” and “Foolish.” While the latter rides the derivative wave of ‘80s revivalism, with Turek playing the role of a Paula Abdul-esque diva over a backing reminiscent of Tom Tom Club, the former song highlights both artists involved well: emotionally-charged lyrics about love and sobriety float amidst an asteroid-dust ridden atmosphere, with a grinding TR-808 beat eventually giving way to a double time rush common in some of Tokimonsta’s best works.
Labelmate MNDR explores a dusky torch song with her peppy vocals suggestive of Karen O, yet instills just the right amount of emotion. Other singers fill in the mix; Andreya Triana lays her very sexy pipes over the neon, J Dilla-esque beat of “Green” to create a slightly disquieting ambiance, while the androgynous voice of Jesse Boykins III ends the album on “Moon Rise” with smooth crooning over a lunar, rippling background. Even hip-hop’s stalwart weird-rapper Kool Keith makes an appearance early on, melding his sci-fi leaning non-sequiturs with an eerie, polyrhythmic groove to great effect.
Oddly enough, however, some of the most effective inclusions of vocals center around the producer’s own hushed, mysterious singing. We hear the first glimpse of her breathy pipes on “Spilling Autumn,” in which doleful synth melodies float like cherry blossoms in the wind as the tempo increases. Here, her harmonies and vocals evoke Black Moth Super Rainbow’s possessed vocoders. Rather than sounding like a demon however, Tokimonsta bring to mind the Japanese female ghosts known as Yurei. As such, her vocalizations are as alluring as they are foreboding, and convey a great deal of emotion through their restraint.
Her mixing down of her vocals take on an almost shoegazey flavor, where ambiguous lyrics and intonations blend into the mix to create a coherent emotional effect. The next two tracks sport a similarly bewitched flair, as the amber glow of “Sweet Williams” and the haunted “Soul To Seoul” elucidate Tokimonsta’s personality and emotional range.
The tracks sans vocals follow Toki’s old, more freaky muse that the producer has been known to tap. Songs such as “The Center” and “Focused Chaos” recall Mouse On Mars’ tomfoolery, with artificial voices taking on percussive elements and false drops toying with the listener’s expectations. The results of some of these tracks, including “808,” don’t pound as hard as her past works and are somewhat jarring when placed on the same album as weightless drifters such as “Waiting For The Break Of Dawn,“ yet they reside far enough away from those tracks to emphasize that Tokimonsta hasn’t totally lost her penchant for goofiness.
As a whole, Half Shadows presents a producer in the midst of transition. The more hushed and secretive atmosphere of her productions pulls her away from the tropes of her spiritual home at Brainfeeder, yet the album never sounds fully content to deviate from the label’s norms (which is never a problem, considering the future-minded approach of that LA crew). However, Lee demonstrates confidence and an advanced approach to electronic production and composition that is more than commendable.
1. The Center
2. The Force (feat. Kool Keith)
4. Focused Chaos
5. Clean Slate (feat. Gavin Turek)
6. Go With It (feat. MNDR)
7. Spilling Autumn
8. Sweet Williams
9. Soul To Seoul
10. Green (feat. Andreya Triana)
11. Waiting for the Break of Dawn
12. Moon Rise (feat. Jesse Boykins III)