Album Review: s / s / s – Beak & Claw EP

[Anticon; 2012]

s / s / s – “Museum Day” by anticon

Take the romantic stings and catchy choruses from the Illinois era, throw in some crazed electronic percussion, melted synths, rapped verses, and autotuned vocals, and stir. You’ll end up with “Museum Day,” the opening track to Beak & Claw, the collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Chicago rapper Serengeti, and New York “producer-composer” Son Lux.

What we have here, essentially, is a hybrid record that marries Serengeti’s hip-hop background with Sufjan and Son Lux’s singer-songwriter leanings. The devil’s in the details: from the Kevin Barnes-esque white-boy-funkadelic harmonizing on “If This Is Real” to the impenetrable bleeps and bloops that remain virtually constant across this EP’s eighteen minutes, Beak & Claw is clearly a labor of love. A lot of effort went into melding these three artists’ different styles into something palatable for fans of each. Well, effort and autotune.

Which isn’t to say that using autotune is necessarily a lazy artistic decision, but its use here is emblematic of this record’s broader problem: throwing a bunch of electronics and breakbeats at songs about, um, dinosaur museums and having “went to prom with the Octomom” (who “went by her middle name then”) doesn’t make said songs any stronger. None of these tracks ever really gels the way its creators probably intended. The choruses are just short of resounding, and while Serengeti’s is impressive, it clumsily interacts with the other two singers’ vocal work. While this disjointed quality can sometimes liven up an otherwise lethargic slice of electronica, here it just seems accidental — or worse, unfinished.

I understand that Beak & Claw is the maiden voyage of an experimental project, but its lack of cohesiveness comes off as a disappointment. Illinois, Greetings from Michigan, and even The Age of Adz were each sprawling Sufjan records that nonetheless represented a unified thematic vision. This sense of purpose is missing from Beak & Claw, however. Why are we singing about Octomom again? Are we not to expect better from the dude who wrote “Casimir Pulaski Day” than such platitudes as, “If I could figure out / What it was all about” repeated ad nauseum?

That latter lyric appears on “Beyond Any Doubt,” which is otherwise the strongest track here: whistling, slow and steady, haunting, memorable, and varied but not jarringly so, it represents what this EP could have been — and what this project could still be. As it stands, Beak & Claw gets an A for effort but considerably lower marks for execution. Indeed, I can’t quite figure out what this record’s all about.