Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid is endearingly high-concept: the story of a kid, from birth to childhood to aging to death. It’s too bad the music isn’t as tidy as the premise. It’s a mess, stuck in a weird limbo between pop and freeform psych that leaves you unsure how to listen to it.

Its biggest draw is the Buchla synthesizer. Smith is among the few musicians to make the rare modular system her primary instrument, and she exploits it for the burbles and beeps and scarily organic plops it can make. The Buchla is best-known for its uncanny skill at imitating other things; sound wizard Suzanne Ciani, who made the wonderful Sunergy with Smith last year, used it to design the “pop” sound you hear in Coke commercials. But it’s hard to find a reference point in the physical world for sounds Smith spins out of it here. It’s always going, either oscillating subtly in the distance or attacking the stereo field with bursts of irascible noise.

Smith is great at creating these soundworlds. Where she falls short is in integrating them into a bigger whole. Smith sings throughout the album, and her “ah-ah-ah” chants bear an obvious resemblance to the wordless choirs of indie folk, a world with which Smith was acquainted as leader of the Berklee College band Ever Isles. But they’re plopped on top of heady analog psychedelia that refuses to acquiesce to the demands of her vocals. At times it sounds like there are two different albums going at once: a quirky folk album and an avant-garde synth sprawl.

For example: on the title track, there’s a perfect moment where the synths drop out and twenty or thirty Smiths sing to the heavens. But then the backing snaps back into place, and Smith’s voice takes a conspicuous second to catch up. Smith probably made The Kid by recording some freeform oscillations and figuring out how they fit into the record later. The contrast challenges the way we respond to the album; it’s too liquid to be pop, too pop to really swim in.

The best moments leave no doubt about their intentions, like the playful ambient interlude “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” or the breathtaking closer “To Feel Your Best.” Smith is still only in her thirties and smartly switches from the first to second person as her “Kid” outgrows her in the last few songs. “To Feel Your Best” is about death—memorizing the contours of a loved one’s face, knowing one day they’ll be gone, never to be seen again. It’s genuinely affecting, and it’s sung over swooning orchestral samples that suggest another great high-concept psych-pop epic about the passage of time: the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed.

Smith makes about an album a year. So far the Ciani collaboration is the best one, and perhaps it’s no coincidence it’s vocal-free. This is not to say Smith shouldn’t sing so much as that her present musical milieu isn’t the friendliest for folky vocal chants. When Smith first announced this album and revealed its gloriously glam cover art, with nebulas reflected in her face, I thought she was the Kid and that she was framing herself as some sort of upstart pop starchild. That might not be a bad approach, but the songs would need to be way better than what’s here.

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