the-uncluded1[xrr rating=3.25/5]For the third consecutive year, we’ve been treated to a brand new release from one-time Def Jukie and longtime underground hip-hop favorite Aesop Rock. Unlike last year’s solo outing Skelethon, this year he hits store shelves as part of duo the Uncluded with Juno-soundtrack mastermind and former half of the Moldy Peaches Kimya Dawson. While I can’t imagine much existing overlap between the two fan bases, one thing that Dawson and Rock share in common is how ravenous and devoted their listeners are, meaning their debut joint effort Hokey Fright is sure to interest a pretty substantial chunk of the indie music market. But, not unlike the rule for multiplying negative numbers, the combination of Dawson and Rock’s own eccentricities has resulted in perhaps the most linear and easy-to-follow release of either’s career. It’s also a lot of fun.

Those looking for a straightforward hip-hop release from Rhymesayers aren’t going to find it here. Of course, that’s always been the case with Rock, but now more than ever it resembles an indie-rock or indie-pop release than even the label’s more avant-garde outings. In fact, instead of the album sounding like a midpoint between the two distinctive artists, Hokey Fright more closely resembles a Dawson record that just happens to have a lot of Rock rhyming on each track. But somewhere between Dawson’s cheek-pinch-worthy overt cutesiness and Rock’s own Joycean linguistic twists, the two balance each other out, alternating turns as conceptual guiding lights or endearing expositions.

I’ll usually be the first to cite how quickly mundane and uninteresting rapping over beats without drums can get, especially during last year’s weird trend of rapping over percussion-less orchestras, but the shared quirkiness of the two makes Rock rhyming a verse over Dawson’s guitar work on Hokey Fright primarily sound like the campfire sing-alongs at a summer camp for outsiders. Dawson’s melodies have never been more infectious, and Rock’s deadpan delivery is given a whole new realm to shine within. If you thought his 2011 album as part of Hail Mary Mallon with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Whiz was Rock at his most light-hearted, get ready for his performance here to sound downright cuddly by comparison.

But as charming and disarming as Hokey Fright is, the album does cover some heavy themes. “Organs” deals with the cosmic relationships made from being an organ donor, “Delicate Cycle” shows the important influence of one’s community during our developing and transitioning years and “TV on 10” deals with plane crashes. Again, the avant-garde approach that both parties usually would take to such a topic is met here with such an understandable synergy that, like all great true collaborations, it’s hard to imagine either of them making these songs on their own.

Slowly but surely, more of Rock’s production creeps into the soundscape as the album progresses, eventually adding a pulsating tension to “TV on 10,” a cool playfulness to “WYHUOM,” a linear trajectory to “Boomerang” and ultimately an all-out jam to the closer “Tits Up.” The latter is the only track that sounds like it would actually be on an Aesop Rock album, and it’s probably the most likely contender for your eventual Best of 2013 list. It’s tempting to call the Uncluded’s Hokey Fright the most esoteric record of both Rock’s and Dawson’s careers, but realistically speaking, given the niche audiences of the parties involved, that might make this album their most accessible. Either way, if you’ve ever been on the same page as either party, chances are you’ll find Hokey Fright to be a pretty fun time.

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