serpentwithfeet - soil

by Tim Sentz Rating:8 Release Date:2018-06-08
serpentwithfeet - soil
serpentwithfeet - soil

When Brooklyn indie rock band Grizzly Bear announced their 2017 tour behind their album “Painted Ruins,” I opted to catch them in St. Paul, Minnesota – an easy, but laborious six-and-a-half-hour drive north of Kansas City. I’d heard the opener before, an experimental R&B/neo-soul singer calling himself serpentwithfeet. The juxtaposition of the two didn’t make a lot of sense at first, and though I may have missed his set that night in St. Paul, listening to his debut album “soil” sheds complete light on the selection.

Born in Baltimore, but hopping around between Philadelphia and New York City, Josiah Wise had struggled to find his voice. His classically trained gospel voice was used in several neo-soul bands, but nothing seemed to stick. After a breakdown, he recreated himself as serpentwithfeet – and under this new moniker released the 2016 EP “blisters” with assistance from electronic producer The Haxan Cloak. “blisters” was a glitchy soul mixed with pop hybrid that set a precedent for what R&B could be, but was always playing it too safe.

“soil” brings Wise more in front of his music. His character – the queer black man marked by tattoos and piercings, and a beard full of glitter – is now front and center, and no longer keeping his voice restrained as it was on “blisters.” Recalling other powerful vocalists in the genre like Frank Ocean, serpentwithfeet’s debut album is a modern R&B classic if there ever was one. His soaring voice brings chills as he quivers delivering his whooooa-ooooo-whoooaa’s on opener “whisper.” Deep, reflective lyrics on his struggles with love and despair may seem like retreads to some, but his delivery, his power, and his soul are all invested strongly in each line.

“blisters” was a solid introduction to serpentwithfeet, with the only drawback being that the experimental aspects of it overshadowed Wise’s songwriting capabilities. This issue is corrected on “soil” as the experimentation takes a minor backseat to his lush vocals.  “wrong tree” shows off Wise’s prowess with writing hooky experimental pop - “you’re climbing up the wrong tree, the word’s only the burning” laced with hand claps and his heavenly voice carries throughout.

In the middle of the record is a rollercoaster suite which steals the show. Starting with “mourning song,” Wise brings the mood down just a bit, getting murky, almost gothic in nature. Faint growls are heard preceding trumpets. It’s refreshing to hear sorrow so pungently put forth. He pulls no punches; his feelings are laid before the listener all exposed and raw.

Continuing the suite is the centerpiece of the album and most pop sounding song “cherubim.” With the trembling “I get to devote my life to him, I get to sing alike the cherubim” Wise flips the switch on his previous tracks direction, giving us a cherishing motive, replete with vivid devotions. It’s a powerful cut from “soil” and possibly the best composition under the serpentwithfeet project. This leads right into “seedless,” one of the more experimental tracks on “soil.” Still, the ever-prevailing Wise doesn’t refrain from giving melody a chance to shine during the chorus. Whereas “mourning song” dealt with the after, and “cherubim” the during, “seedless” is the resistance to breaking things off with his lover.

The album closes with a piano based love ballad, which after the stress of the trio is a welcome closer. “bless ur heart” was the first taste of the album we received back in March, and it leaves its audience feeling more hopeful about love and acceptance. Wise may be a pioneer to the genre now, but the themes he covers in the 40 minutes of music here may very well be the cornerstone for all experimental R&B artists to build off. “soil” is overflowing with emotion, and coupled with his amazing voice, it’s hard not to get chills. It’s an accomplishment of song crafting - the ability to mix experimental sounds, church bells, glitch, baritone, falsetto, trembling, and have it all come out as a treasure chest of pop melodies that are heartbreaking, infuriating, and inspiring.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
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