Marian Hill’s ‘Unusual’ Is a Deconstructed Future Pop/R&B Collage
Brooklyn-born duo Marian Hill consists of singer Samantha Gongol and producer Jeremy Lloyd. Their name is derived from the characters Marian Paroo and Harold Hill, in the musical “The Music Man.” The song, “Down,” from their 2016 debut, “Act One,” was featured in a commercial for Apple’s wireless “AirPod” headphones, and serves as a prime example of an aesthetic realized. Anything “wireless” would fit well with the duo’s music, as their sound is always open, spacious, disconnected, and abstracted, albeit in a way that is immediately, intoxicatingly catchy. It’s no surprise that “Down” became Shazam’s Number One in America. Now, Gongol and Lloyd have released their followup, “Unusual,” and it’s a full-length extension of everything that brought them all the attention in the first place.
Opener, “Subtle Thing,” with a modest sound kit of beatboxed bass, crisp kicks and snares, and pitched-down vocals, sets the tone of the record. The beatboxing recalls Bjork’s “Medulla,” and the drum sounds have the same feel of “Things Fall Apart”-era Roots, or anything on Okayplayer at that time, for that matter. The emergent mood, however, is considerably different. Marian Hill’s music is bright and colorful, and each song sounds like a set of floating shapes. This is a minimalist album that achieves great potency by assembling grooves with a few dynamic, hard-hitting sounds. “Differently” continues in this vein, adding horns and toms to the mix. The song is dancey in a hypnotically repetitive way. “All Night Long” takes strident free jazz clips that would seem downright alien if not programmed to repeat regularly, creating regularity out of irregularity to a confoundingly agreeable effect. Some of the wildest moments occur when tones ring briefly, swell, and pop. “Don’t Miss You” is full of cartoonish sound candy and stuttering, spliced vocals.
“Wish You Would” is built on a hand clap stomp, video game melodic snippets, and momentary deep bass dips. Upon hearing the vocal melody and song structure, many will recall a certain strain of ‘90s R&B, best characterized by Aaliyah and Timbaland’s 1998 hit, “Tell Me You’re That Somebody.” Marian Hill sounds like a future rendition of this aesthetic, deconstructed, sharpened, situated, and streamlined. This far into the album, one peculiarity that colors the music should become clear, although it can easily escape one’s notice. There are, conspicuously, no sustained chords, ringing notes, or constant noise of any sort. All sounds are chopped and segmented. Every song is a collage, and the abundant open space does much to create the open, fresh immediacy of the music.
“Sideways” slightly deviates from this pattern, adding some jazzy keys that ring longer than any sound up to this point. It makes the song the most conventional so far, but is only a slight variation on the band’s general sonic approach. “No Hesitation” wastes no time in bringing you far back leftfield. At this stage, the approach could have easily grown tiresome, but it was so original to begin with that it still strikes as delightfully fresh. There’s a moment in the chorus when Gongol sings “I want…” and her intonation recalls TLC’s “No Scrubs,” further zeroing in on a certain phase in pop music as the primary source of inspiration. As expected, however, Marian Hill’s take on this all is several worlds removed.
“Listening” is more of the same, but approaches new heights of silliness with a jazzy bit in the last third that is equal parts SNL opening theme, school jazz band, and hip-hop cartoon. “Go Quietly” is the perfect closer, as the album’s most climactic moment, an absolute riot of synth bends and chord steps, spliced vocal arpeggios, goofy machinedrum fills, washes, and percussive texture.
It’s surprising that this sound hasn’t fully been explored before, as it seems a natural extension of styles that have been lingering in mainstream music for decades. Countless artists have dabbled in this realm, but Marian Hill has truly claimed it as its own. The utter absence of any filler, the unadulterated, hard-hitting patchwork, and the winsome levity of attitude make for a thoroughly enjoyable album, and a promising next step from a one-of-a-kind artist.
“Unusual” is available May 11 on Apple Music.