Lion Babe, a collaboration between childhood friends Jilian Hervey and Lucas Goodman, won’t pounce on you with immediately recognizable pop songs. Instead, it will claw you in with subdued and arresting atmospherics. If neo-soul is an umbrella-like genre for a variety of influences such as jazz, soul, RNB and funk, Lion Babe takes this idea and runs with it. They spend the majority of their time on their debut album Begin () trying on different outfits, making each track sound impulsive and itching to show off, all the while remaining thematically consistent to their own vision.
Propelled by a striking sci-fi styled introduction, “Whole” proudly pursues a less-than-obvious pop structure and sounds like a transmission received from a distant planet. High on smouldering lust, its drawl-like chorus and wordless free-floating, studio-processed vocal runs are as alluring as they are otherly. At approximately two-and-a-half minutes in length, the less-is-more approach is one that comes to define the whole album.
Feeding on humble yet compulsive grooves, “Jump Hi” (featuring Childish Gumbino) sidesteps the predictable clichés such a song title might trap even the most seasoned of songwriters into and opts for a sample-drenched shuffle of seduction and a chugging fizz of bristling beats. Singer Hervey vamps it up with her supple timbre while producer Goodman’s beats burn out like a joint.
Whether the Billboard Hot 100 will ever be their natural habitat or not remains to be seen, but the Paloma Faith style wail of “Wonder Woman” is their most viable prospect so far. The densely minimal “Stressed Out” feels off the cuff, but is still steeped in pervasive atmospheric tendencies. Positioned between a reverence for classic RNB with an austere, disjointed sense of modernity, Hervey purring “I am a woman of the future” illustrates Lion Babe’s determination to tap into its own language and intentions.
The loungy orchestration “Satisfy My Love” meanders in and out of groove and focus, melding together offbeat spontaneity with sleek sonics. The key lyric “Can you satisfy me? Can you survive me?” almost revels in artistic singularity and scattered influences. On the sensual disco sigh of “Where Do We Go,” the duo lovingly forge a tribute to ’70s nightclubs using thicker ’80s RNB grooves, resulting in the album’s biggest chorus. A hair-blowing-in-the-wind flow of high-flying gusto, the execution overwhelms the lyrical uncertainty into one of no longer caring.
“On the Rocks” is suitably sharper-edged. With frantic beats cushioned by soft synths, the juxtaposition keeps the song going off the rails. Its lush setting and rich vocal sorcery create a wonderful and haunting momentum. “Hold On” gleams with plush atmospherics and witchy coos. With sparse beats that reverberate with airy echoes, the song retains the group’s relaxed bohemian trance in an unhurried manner.
With yet more deceptively bare bones production values, both “Got Body” and the slinkier still “Impossible” snap into shape with self-assured taunting, chanting and sound like mixing together the legendary FannyPack with an on form Destiny’s Child.
An early glimpse of their riveting RNB genius, “Treat Me Like Fire,” was a debut single four years ago. It remains an intoxicating fusion of jazz and other blurry-eyed mid-tempo substances. A striking video immediately setting them apart, the detail is fundamentally in the music. With such commitment to an aesthetic, Lion Babe never overlooks emotional content. The muted drama of “Little Dreamer” is a lonely ballad, showcasing a vocal strength that may not have been apparent initially from the stylish music videos and singles they have made their name with. That the earlier single “Don’t Break My Heart” doesn’t feature on the album’s tracklist is a crime, but is also proof of just how much they have to offer. Sensual electronic rhythms add extra layers and turn the chorus (like a hip hop filtered echo of classic 1960s girlband pleas) into a gorgeous smear of melody.
Lion Babe is as much presentation as communication. Lurking and thriving as avant-garde RNB cult favorites, they are an incredibly engaging breath of fresh air. The album digs deep into a variety of genres all the while feeling incredibly minimalistic. Melodies are often downplayed into downbeat simmers, but while these spirited productions may be subtle, Lion Babe’s off-kilter ambition and cool restraint is anything but tame. Airtight with idiosyncratic neo-soul embellishments that possibly hint at a short attention span, or else just an ease of creating a mixture of beautifully piercing and sparse moods, the marvel is how ridiculously engaging and likable they are as a result of such a short album being so full of ideas and commitment.
Begin is the sound of a group both hinting at and hitting their spirited stride, if not the charts.
Available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify. Visit lionbabe.com.
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