Hundred Waters at their most splendid.
It was only a few years ago that Hundred Waters appeared on the electronic scene; a weird, warped, American counterpart to Chvrches. Shimmering synths, catchy choruses and female vocals were all present, but so was an unsettling sense of tempo and lyrical work. Chvrches and the like looked outward to arenas to fill, while Hundred Waters dove inward to strange, crystalline worlds. But now the Florida outfit have a Chance the Rapper collaboration under their belt and were signed by Skrillex’s OWSLA; it’s all one degree of separation from an unavoidable Diplo remix or even Justin Bieber jumping on a track.
So is Communicating the pivot to full popstardom? No, it’s still too mind-melting. And, more importantly, it has the sort of emotional nuance rare for any album, let alone Billboard chart hits. Though you could be fooled by opening track “Particle.” It’s a rushing, pulsing thing with simple piano chords that wouldn’t be out of place in a One Direction song. Singer Nicole Miglis shows off her Top 40 pipes the best here. “One of us is changing,” she coos, perhaps noting the evolution of her band. Certainly, Trayer Tryon and Zach Tetreault’s musical choices seem a bit toned down from the last album. Considering Hundred Waters’ best songs – “Boreal” and “Out Alee” – relied on twisting pop formulas into strange shapes through time signature shifts and unpredictable key changes, the relatively straightforward nature of Communicating seems to dull Tetreault’s dexterous drum playing and Tryon’s eclectic production decisions.
There are snippets of oddness between the chiming keyboards and gauzy piano interjections, but the song’s a poor introduction to Communicating. Hundred Waters get so much weirder, and better. “Wave to an Anchor” might be Hundred Waters’ first full-fledged banger (complete with ear-stabbingly annoying synth). But they, like any smart flirter, waits for the the third track/date to reveal some true strangeness. “Prison Guard” is an utterly baffling piece of piano pop. It’s a sleeker version of their creep-fest single “Down from The Rafters” from a few years ago. Miglis doubles her voice in the chorus, as the rest of the song chugs along over a buzzing drum line. Most of the song is so insubstantial that Miglis’ undulating singing becomes completely hypnotizing.
This is a common and effective trick used throughout Communicating. Miglis loves tracking herself over already confusing vocal lines, spinning a web that’s damn hard to unravel. But that’s probably the point. With more traditional backgrounds, Miglis can go ham, indulging choir girl fantasies usually only found in full acapella groups. “Re:” even has a church choir joining Miglis’ steamy delivery as she gasps between chopped up vocal samples. “If I fall into you…,” she muses as light pianos descend into a digital haze.
Love is on Miglis’ mind throughout Communicating. “Some days it feels like I love you too much,” she sings on “Fingers.” And much like Hundred Waters’ own evolution into something resembling a pop band, Miglis traces her own morphing relationships; friends and family left behind or ignored as Hundred Waters grew, but mostly she focuses on more passionate revelations. The title track has a chorus of Miglis simply asking, “Are we communicating?” – and it’s a fair question. This multitude of Miglises seem to echo an anxious, nervous mind, doubling back on choices, blowing things out of proportion and misremembering past failures. That makes it all the more powerful when the cocoon of voices drops away. Penultimate track “Blanket” has Miglis admitting, “You’re my skin,” and asking her partner to simply, “blanket me” and turn off, not just the outside world, but her own stuttering thoughts.
Hundred Waters reach one pure moment of balance and enlightenment on Communicating, fittingly coming at the exact middle point of the album. “At Home & in My Head” walks the tight rope with ease, embracing the oddball jitter of previous songs and maximizing everything else. Tetreault is back to his best here, shuddering his way across the drum kit, while the swirl of synths and pianos are shined to a perfect degree, pulsing with latent energy as Miglis sings, “come home to me…there’s no key.” On the surface, it seems like a plea to a wayward lover to rejoin Miglis in domestic bliss, but there’s more to discover. “So alone/ So at home and in my head/ Hail Mary, it’s hailing overhead,” Miglis notes of her own frenetic brain, trying to keep up with her worries. At the end of the first verse she sings, “You have nothing to hide/ You are strangled by pride.” Perhaps she’s singing to herself here, trying to encourage a purging of negativity that keeps holding her back from full relationships of any sort, held down by her own fears.
That’s Hundred Waters at their most splendid. They mirror Björk’s own electronic-human connection. In the cross section between the two they find more nuance, feeling and emotion streaming between the wires and veins.