Eyedea & Abilities
By the Throat
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Cynics like to claim that the current generation is so crippled by short attention spans that we can’t focus or stick to anything. While living under this claim, this self-defeating mantra hoisted on us by our elders, maybe we’ve pushed things in a different direction than expected. Unlike our slacker ancestors, our generation often tries to do too much; our artists break themselves as they try to command as many different media as possible, exhausting their inspiration as they attempt to navigate all possible genres. Lately, this trait has been particularly prevalent in the underground as the most skilled emcees and producers transform over night into straightforward indie rock bands or unclassifiable experimental ensembles. Occasionally, the transformation pays off. Yoni Wolf and Adam Drucker arguably having taken their work in cLOUDDEAD to its logical conclusion with their respective bands Why? and Subtle. For Eyedea & Abilities, however, their attempt falls far short of the mark on By the Throat.
After a nearly five year hiatus following their sophomore release, E&A, the duo have more than just increased expectations from fans to contend with. They also have to deal with facing a scene that is almost unrecognizable compared to where it was in 2004. The backpacker emcees that dominated the market back then have either completely shifted their focus or have fallen largely out of favor, taking their more introspective lyrical focus with them. The world of hip-hop in 2009 is one where, for the first time in its history, rap as a whole has suffered decreased sales, due to listeners’ interest in sub-genres like the so-called “ringtone rap” and an increasing influence from R&B.
The odds are unfortunately stacked against Eyedea & Abilities, whose sound has always been paradoxically too minimal for the mainstream and too rambunctious for the backpacker set. And for the first half of the album, the duo fall under those odds, appearing out of place and confused. Starting with two quasi-indie rock band throwaways, “Hay Fever” and “Spin Cycle,” the album seems to head towards the bargain bin. Despite Michael Larsen’s abilities as an emcee, his voice is too thin and nasally to work with the melodies he tries to craft and when maneuvering into a speak-singing technique, he just comes across like some white kid in the suburbs trying to spit out a “flow.” Worse, the following two tracks are thoroughly generic, unimaginative indie hip-hop missteps. “Time Flies When You Have a Gun” is a dirtied up GarageBand demo, “Burn Fetish” a twinkling, brooding, digitized journal entry that sounds exactly like hundreds of local hip-hop crews you’ve rightly forgotten.
Luckily, the pace and scope pick up quickly beginning with “Sky Diver,” which is the first time on the album that indie rock and rap influences merge seamlessly. Led by a prodding chorus-soaked guitar line and a breakbeat that manages to sound like something you’ve heard before but can’t quite name and is better for it, “Sky Diver” almost manages to wash away the taste of the sluggish A side that precedes it. Larsen wisely leaves room for the instrumental aspects to do their magic, tangoing with the beat on the verses and disappearing completely during the dreamy choruses. The track takes risks but also feels familiar, like a song you’ve heard in a dream and are never sure whether it’s real or just a product of your imagination. Nothing else on the album compares to it, but it isn’t for a lack of trying; “Junk” is what Beck’s “Minus” would have been if Beck could actually, you know…rap and “This Story” is an all out battle between broken-down electronics and filtered out drums with Larsen’s nasally flow at its speed-obsessed finest. Album closer “By the Throat” comes the closest to creating something as memorable as “Sky Diver,” with its scuzzed out bassline and epic feedback like the Butthole Surfers covering Black Sabbath.
By the Throat unfortunately suffers in the end from its lackluster beginning and is hampered by its status as an attempted triumphant return of a duo that has been away from the game for too long. The missteps are too frequent to be forgotten and the standouts aren’t striking enough to cancel them out. As De La Soul said, stakes is high, and while that isn’t exactly Eyedea & Abilities’ fault, it’s a truth the group won’t be able to escape.
by Morgan Davis