(Sub Pop; 2012)
By Matt Main | 1 June 2012
“awE,” the first track on awE naturalE, opens with a stuttering wash of sounds—twisting sounds that blend and bleat, that are futuristic, dystopian even. Then boom-bap percussion settles in alongside and offers a different dimension: the structure of a neo-soul/hip-hop beat. THEESatisfaction fit comfortably into both of these guises, professing a love for the funk and groove of their predecessors while pushing a decidedly modern agenda on identity when the beat is peeled back and the words have to stand alone. Maybe that’s what first appealed to local collaborator Palaceer Lazaro of Shabazz Palaces, who they worked with on Shabazz’s AOTY Black Up (2011) after realizing that a fusion of their collective visions would sound, well, fucking great. On “Swerve… The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)” Stasia closed the album unforgettably with both a thesis and a promise: “Still it morphs / This shit is way too advanced.” awE naturalE marks the continuation of THEESatisfaction’s half of that morphosis into what is beyond.
This often informs the album’s transitional nature. Songs frequently fade in and out, preventing absolute distinctions between tracks and ideas and refusing to allow awE naturalE to be broken into sections. In theory the intention is probably to produce a more definitive statement, but the album isn’t quite cohesive enough to pull this off, meaning that it is moments rather than songs that fester in the memory. For instance, the accelerating, rhythmic verse against the faint threat of piano that closes “Earthseed,” or the bass/handclap combo that underpins “Bitch.” The effect is that the album feels like less of a unified collection of songs and more a series of vignettes, only the disparity between elements allows no connecting strand to forge a link through them all, and ultimately proves less fulfilling.
This is disappointing, as there are certainly intriguing elements to awE naturalE which invite closer attention. Identity is a theme which often bubbles to the surface and provides welcome purpose to THEESatisfaction’s unhurried ruminations. “Whatever you do, don’t funk with my groove” is the kind of easy sentiment that flows naturally from songs like “QueenS,” but “Rainbow flags blowing / Burning crosses, sprinkled ashes,” from “Earthseed,” sets a much sharper tone, and these moments are when THEESatisfaction really hit their stride. “My melanin is relevant / It’s something to be had,” goes the chanted mantra in “Deeper,” and the production reflects the stronger focus of these vibes, with its unsettling, juddering bass and insistently beeping synth. On awE naturalE, the words direct the tone, and when the self-proclaimed Queens of the Stoned Age find a target, the rhymes lock into place and tumble incisively forth.
Decisively though, this is both one of the record’s key strengths, and also its downfall, as it serves to highlight the fact that more often than not awE naturalE lacks a propellant. This album could really do with a truly infectious melody or two dotted between the stellar beats and appreciable craft, and perhaps even more tellingly, it begs for more room for rap. Shabazz being Shabazz and all, it’s perhaps not surprising that the two tracks Lazaro lends a verse to, “God” and “Enchantruss,” are the best on the album; both feel like ideas truly explored to their most fulfilling potential, rather than the half-complete bursts of excellence that awE naturalE frustratingly contains. This is not to downplay the importance of Cat Satisfaction’s vocal performances, one half of the balance that makes THEESatisfaction so appealing as both artists and concept, but certainly a few of these tracks would benefit from an extra minute with which the duo could fully flesh out their vision.
Now with the backing of a major label, they need no longer be fixed in the write/record/post-to-Bandcamp cycle they have traditionally worked in, and have the time and resources with which to chisel, modify, and refine. A realization that develops the more one listens to this album is that awE naturalE, while flawed, is perhaps still only one elevating factor from being a great album. Maybe this means more verses, more focus, or maybe, as CMG’s Chet Betz suggests, it simply needs “more handclaps.” In any case, there is a vital something absent; reassuringly, though, the greatness that eludes awE naturalE doesn’t feel like something THEESatisfaction will never “morph” into.