Album Review: Photay – Waking Hours

[Mexican Summer; 2020]

Evan Shornstein’s work as Photay has always been admirable for his uncanny ability to make alien textures and off-kilter melodies sound warm and familiar. His latest album, Waking Hours, finds Shornstein moving closer to the spotlight and embracing a more pop-centric side to his songwriting, showcasing his voice more than ever before. Though he pares down some of the sheer sonic ingenuity of his past work to make way for this stronger focus on vocal arrangements, the album remains one of the more invigorating electronic records this year.

Shornstein has been playing drums since he was a kid, and percussion has always been the unwavering sun that his bouncy electronic compositions orbit around. On Waking Hours, he still leaves plenty of room for groovy beats and all kinds of percussive flourishes, but it’s clear Shorestein is attempting to branch out and explore new approaches to his sound. The most noticeable way he does this is through singing; we’ve heard his voice before on a handful of tracks, but it was a pretty rare occurrence. A couple of years ago, his vocals were seemingly so disconnected from his music that he listed himself as a feature on one of his songs just because he sang over it. After listening to Waking Hours, it appears he’s finally ready to accept his voice, and that sense of self-discovery is apparent throughout the album. 

Lead single “Is It Right?” is a prime example of Shornstein making it clear he wants his voice heard. Instead of trying to hide behind myriad of effects, he presents his vocals almost entirely unadorned. “Now that you’ve found it / Is it right for you? / Now that you have it / Is it right for you?” he repeats in the hook, each time layering in more and more harmonies.

Shornstein’s singing voice is nothing to write home about, but he makes deceptively smart decisions in the way he uses it. He treats his voice like the malleable instrument it is and knows when to let it shine through and when to let the music do the talking. Many of the tracks do not follow the traditional verse/chorus structure you’d find on any pop record; instead he hones in on one melody and lyrical mantra to gradually expand upon as a song progresses. He also brings in a few backup singers to add depth and to bolster his singing, which is an apt choice. 

Perhaps the strongest example of Shornstein working without his newfound vocals is “Fanfare For 7.83 Hz”. Named after the Schumann Resonances, which represent the low frequencies of Earth’s magnetic field, the track glides across its five-and-a-half-minute runtime, hovering briefly before breaking through the atmosphere entirely. When Shornstein locks into a groove to create dynamic musical structures, the results are undeniable. 

“The People” is Shornstein’s most overtly political song to date. “Are you doin’ it for the people / Or are you tryin’ to just hide away?” he asks repeatedly around warbly percussion and deep bass synth hits. The lyrics feel especially relevant now at a time when a president would rather hide in a bunker than address major systemic issues facing the country. 

Elsewhere, Shornstein proves he hasn’t lost his knack for hammering out beguiling lead melodies. “Rhythm Research” has a piano hook that will have you humming for days, while “Pressure” brings in a cinematic string section and buoyant electric pianos to create an alluring piece of… Latin disco? Sometimes, you have to wonder if Shornstein has any idea of the direction he wants his songs to go, but when they sound this fun, it’s hard to care much. 

Though many of the tracks include Shornstein’s idiosyncratic production style and a plethora of fascinating auditory embellishments, he is never quite able to combine them as elegantly as on past highlights like “No Sass” from his self-titled album. It’s unclear whether or not this is because he devoted more time working his vocals into the tracks, but if Waking Hours is just a glimpse at Shornstein’s potential to blend these two worlds, the possibilities are near-limitless. With such an emphasis on vocal performances, the hope was that Shornstein would allow some guest vocalists to take center stage, as he’s done before, but that could possibly have detracted from the record’s focus on self-discovery.  

Like a rubber band being stretched around two fingers, Waking Hours oscillates between tension and ease. At times, the songs are tightly wound and rigid, only to suddenly dissolve into a relaxed, comfortable groove. Though he hasn’t made any giant leaps forward from his past work, with Waking Hours Shornstein has discovered the importance of his voice and displays it with a level of confidence that is admirable. He may be taking a risk by stepping into the spotlight, but by channeling anxious energy into a set of vibrant, personal songs, you’ll wonder why he hasn’t done so all along.