Unbuttoned - Liquid

by Jon Burke Rating:3 Release Date:2017-09-15

Liquid by Unbuttoned is an inexcusable exercise in self-congratulatory musical masturbation. To use a culinary metaphor, imagine a plate and in one corner is a delicious cut of sashimi-grade tuna, in the other, a slice of key lime pie. In the middle of the plate, a lovely bolognaise sauce and across the bottom, oysters on the half shell. Now deep fry the whole thing, plate and all, cover it in a green curry and top with maraschino cherries. My point: no matter how delicious one element may be, on its own, combing disparate elements will fail unless the chef carefully curates their dishes. This need for careful curation goes doubly so for music – especially music branded with that most nebulous of labels, “independent.” This is the year Thundercat dropped Drunk, Broken Social Scene dropped Hug of Thunder, Choker dropped Peak, Idles dropped Brutalism and Syd gifted us all with Fin – all albums which deftly combine disparate musical elements to make a gloriously cohesive whole.

Now comes Unbuttoned, a band whose very name focuses on style over substance, pretentiously delivering Liquid as if it deserves a place amongst the best of 2017, which it does not. Instead, Unbuttoned show-off their considerable chops in service of “a sound” that never actually sounds like anything, making Liquid a 45 minute reminder that just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Track one, “EP8,” is an interesting instrumental opener, belying what’s to come. The airy, plucked electronics hint at a neo-psych, dream pop sound which never actually materializes on the record. Had Unbuttoned chosen “EP8” as the sonic foundation for their album, this review might have been very different.

Track two, “Bedroom Fall,” is where things start to fall apart. Fittingly, “Bedroom Fall” is also the album’s first single. The song opens, again, with an interesting electronic loop – a beat which sounds like a jazz drummer using brushes on a snare. Then after nearly a minute of the loop intensifying, and a rushing sound building in the background, a thrumming wash of keyboards comes in. So far, so good. Then we hear the voice of Casey MQ and everything goes to shit. MQ’s voice isn’t “bad” per se, in fact, he seems to be vocally adept. Unfortunately, his vocal style is more Glee than rock and he comes off as whiny and, though technically proficient, lacking in any actual edge… Imagine Michael Buble doing Prince Karaoke and you’ll understand the problem. To make matters worse, the song’s big beat has Bjork “Army of Me” pretentions but, when combined with the flat keyboards and MQ’s fey vocals, feels more like a rejected Adam Levine B-side.

Track three, “Soft Thing,” with its pulsing drum n’ bass beat and gorgeous vocals by Kamilah Apong offers some redemption after the debacle that is “Bedroom Fall.” MQ actually takes a backseat, vocally, simply harmonizing with Apong throughout the opening of “Soft Thing” and ends up sounding a bit like James Blake in the process. By the end of the track, “Soft Thing” resembles TV on the Radio and offers listeners hope that Unbuttoned have finally settled on a sound. Unfortunately, “Soft Thing” just serves as a what-could-have-been showcase for the band’s abilities, quickly undercut by what’s to come.

“Crystal Growth” which, musically speaking, sounds like The Cure circa Disintegration, features MQ and Apong harmonizing in low nearly-whispered vocals. Just when you think either of the pair is about to break loose vocally, and belt-out something powerful, neither does, and the result is a quiet, inexplicable, attempt at what would happen if the show choir tried to write a Cure song.   

Things don’t improve on “To the Water” which, like “EP8,” seems to be little more than a weird interlude. MQ sings unintelligible lyrics though some kind of distortion, and at what sounds like a great distance from the microphone, while an acoustic guitar is softly picked, in pleasant chords. It’s all over in less than two minutes and amounts to little more than filler.

The album’s sixth track, “Sending Psalms,” whose title is pleasant on the tongue but utterly devoid of meaning, again strays into new musical territory that makes no coherent sense within the album. After some strumming and humming, MQ sings:

“Silhouette, it takes new shapes/It hovers over me/Now I can breathe. Single voice/Can you speak to me/Tell me all your philosophies/And carry on the weight/Can you carry on the weight? If I die more than three times/Is that enough for you to see the truth in my eyes?/The truth in these blue, blue, blue eyes.”

What does any of this new age garbage actually mean – beyond an unintentional admission of MQ’s vanity? The track then explodes, with Apong harmonizing like Lisa Gerrard, and MQ doing his best Peter Gabriel impersonation for a few brief shouts. But merely shouting in the style of a socially conscious rock god does not a socially conscious rock god make and ultimately “Sending Psalms” has all the depth of Adrian Grenier’s Twitter feed.

Continuing with the “where-the-fuck-is-this-record-going?” vibe is, “Catch Me I’m Falling,” which starts out as a smoky nightclub soul jazz jam boasting gorgeous vocals by Apong. Then the song morphs into a bizarrely inappropriate drum ‘n bass-meets-experimental jazz sax solo cacophony. While I am certain the saxophonist is a talented musician, their presence on the record is inexplicable. The mess becomes so overwhelming as to become unlistenable. Again, just because you can throw in a sax solo doesn’t mean you should.

The rest of the album is a messy amalgam of incompatible styles and genres amounting to nothing. “Oceans, Cliffs and Green Hills” initially comes across as World Music but soon reveals itself to be Unbuttoned’s take on Imagine Dragons. “My Hormones” is a languid, can’t-be-bothered, low-key downer of a track which only made me want to dial whine-one-one because clearly MQ needs a whaaambulance, stat.  Though initially slow burn, “Womxn Cry,” transforms into a thumping club track which again hints at the possibilities for this album if only Unbuttoned would have gotten out of their own way. “Serene” is an odd pizzicato chamber pop piece which shifts with the introduction of Kamilah Apong’s vocals into a gorgeous shuffling jazz track… which quickly vanishes into a nebulous wall of incongruent keyboards, droning on for a full minute, before the song (and album) ends.

Vibe Magazine, upon hearing The Fugees’ Blunted On Reality, declared Lauryn Hill should go solo and her two compatriots ought to stop making music altogether – advice we are all glad The Fugees didn’t heed. With that said, Unbuttoned warrants the exact same critique. Every track centered-on Kamilah Apong seems to greatly benefit from her presence while the rest of the album feels like unchecked ego run amuck. I sincerely hope Unbuttoned have a The Score in them if only because it will get the awful taste of Liquid out of my mouth.

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