Growth and innovation are a hard combination to get right in the electronic genre. It’s easy to belittle an artist for moving slowly, especially as technology advances quickly enough for everyone to make their own particular sound (or their own particular version of another sound, at least). A musician like Matthew Dear is having pretty good success, finding new ways to capture his voice and introduce more live instruments into his songs (see his last two albums, Black City and Beams), while Axel Wilner (aka The Field) tried his hand at full-band slinky electronica (his second album, Yesterday & Today) and slid it into his original looping-focused style on his next release (2011’s Looping State Of Mind). What’s celebrated less, though, in this age which more often asks for something fresher, is those who stay put in style or sound, and worm out their own particular brand of music over and over.
It’d be hard to say that Virginia duo Outlands are staying put in their own style as their new self-titled EP is only their first proper release, but it’s easy to perceive it as the kind of music both a slightly adventurous veteran might create, along with being that of eager beginners trying to find their footing. For the most part, their EP is easy to class as “disco-noir,” presenting danceable beats and features, but cloaking them in mystery and late-night club grittiness, and as foundation, it suits them well enough. The duo-Mark Arciaga and Melissa Smith–do try their hand at few other things outside of this description, and while it can make Outlands feel a tad uneasy at times, for the most part it hints at what might be an interesting future for the band.
The duo gained a little attention with their first single “Com Ocean,” a lo-fi murky dance track complete with Samps-like borrowed bass, a recurring 70’s disco string motif, and sultry, airy vocals. It’s kind of nifty, and a while a good first step for them, amidst the other tracks here, it shows its age and feels poorly mixed with cymbal crashes that splash over everything else. What comes off much better is their version of Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English,” which not only brings the original groove into the foreground (making me hear Donna Summer ‘s “Hot Stuff” near enough every time), but also has singer Melissa Smith sounding at her best. The way she sings the song’s title makes it sound like she’s singing the words “Broken angels,” which makes for an apt description of the duo when they’re rolling through their best motions.
“Sisters/Lovers” is where the band tries to slow down the excitement, but forget to inject something special. Moving forward with a plodding two-note bass line, the track seems to want to emphasize Smith’s admirably amorous vocals, but her lyrics too often get lost in the airiness. Elsewhere, “LDW (Black Ops Remix)” is an odd track in that it seems to try to condense the accessible sounds of the previous five tracks and present them in a form that would be easily welcomed by club DJs. There are a few welcome sonic details (the reverberating handclaps, the vocals snippets) but it feels too easy and in sticking together elements of other tracks, leaves itself without any real individual flair.
What they do well, though, is brood. Opening track “The Looming” flitters about in a benign manner, with a heart-beat pulse keeping it afloat as Smith croons like a mythological siren in the distance; “Black Ops” grinds ominously as the vocals are given the Karin Dreijar-esque treatment before they repeat the sentiment, “We are the ones who get things done” over and over. Amidst the dank buzzing and clockwork sounds, the sentiment suits them perfectly, as they sound like they’re working away in the background, like they’ve got something up their sleeve. While this EP might just be the duo dipping their feet in the water, at its best it can certainly feel like they’ve also slipped something potent into the water supply.