I like happy accidents.
Trip-hoppers Endless Blue, of Milwaukee, is one of those said accidents. The duo (previously a trio) was discovered by me a couple months ago whilst perusing a download site. The track “Ninety-Nine,” off their 2004 debut was the song that got me interested enough in them to contact them directly, to which I was graciously rewarded with a copy of the disc that came from, as well as the 2005 follow up, Smoke Through It. Aren’t these just some nice folks?
Well, one thing I have prided myself on over the last 3 and one-half years of writing for MusicTAP (as well as the three or so years I have written professionally elsewhere), is that despite getting free swag, I remain relatively unbiased. Send me your entire discography, get me into your concert gratis, feed me a big dinner, complete with beer and wine, on the house. If the music stinks and there’s rat poop on the floor, THE TRUTH MUST BE KNOWN.
Thankfully, the music doesn’t stink and if there was any rat poop around, Nick Mitchell and Laura Hillman cleaned it up before I walked into the room. That said, there is a reason why this review is coming about three weeks later than originally planned. That reason: I didn’t want to stop listening to the first album.
In almost every way, the band’s self-titled debut is superior. From Mitchell’s thick beats, professional recording, to Hillman’s unique, sometimes childlike croon overlapping with the sensual, almost Sadè-like voice of former fellow singer Amanda Oechsle (indeed, she does a pitch perfect cover of Sadè’s “No Ordinary Love” on this debut), the back and forth between the two distinct vocal styles works very, very well, especially on the supremely listenable “Broken Waters” (now a mix CD staple). Where Hillman is poppy, Oechsle is smoky. Where Hillman is a night out with friends, Oechsle is a dark, winding road to somewhere mysterious.
Perhaps, then, the absence of Oechsle is some of the reason why Smoke Through It feels a bit of a sophomore slump. Right from the onset, the completeness of the debut doesn’t feel present, as opener “Stranger” doesn’t feel at all like a song you would want to open with (albums have ebbs and flows in their progression. Like Jon Cusack’s character knew in High Fidelity, the perfect mix tape must follow those ebbs and flows for the tape to be truly appreciated. “Stranger” sounds more like a track 3 or 4, certainly not a track 1). Also, the beat presented sounds like a click-track (you know, one of those things used during band practices when you don’t have a drummer, to keep rhythm). It keeps rhythm, sure, but it’s way out front in the mix – it almost sounds like a mistake.
That’s not to say Smoke Through It as a whole sounds like a mistake. It’s a decent album. Hillman, now seemingly channeling a bit of Alanis Morrisette, holds her own throughout on hooky tunes like “The Feeling” and “Just Tell Me,” but her attempt and sultriness on the cover of “Fever” is kind of flat. I don’t know; I guess I just miss the yin and yang having Oechsle on board brought to the vibe of the debut.
Despite getting these two free CDs, the truth must be told: Endless Blue is professional and complete. Smoke Through It, while listenable, sounds amateurish and rushed. Hopefully, the extensive time the duo has taken working on album three will be well worth it, and will outclass both of their previous attempts at “trashy beats, jazzy keys, sultry vox.”