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Shy Layers - Midnight Marker Music Album Reviews

Shy Layers - Midnight Marker Music Album Reviews

On Shy Layers’ second album, his chill-but-adventurous aesthetic snaps into clearer focus. Highlife, funk, Ethio-jazz, and more all swirl together in every measure of music.

JD Walsh’s debut album as Shy Layers, two years ago, came laced with déjà vu. He was hardly shy about his influences: There were hints of Arthur Russell in the vocals, African highlife in the guitars, and Kraftwerk in the sweetly cooing vocoders, but, more than any specific reference, you were left with a sense of familiarity that was hard to place. His balmy yacht-pop sounded like the soundtrack to a half-remembered childhood vacation, maybe, or an AM radio humming in the background of a dream. On first listen, you felt like you already knew it, intimately; you just didn’t know why.

Shy Layers’ new album, Midnight Marker, shares many of its predecessor’s qualities: Between its unique blend of analog synths, rippling guitar melodies, and acoustic drum kit, there’s no mistaking it for the work of anyone else. But it also feels less indebted to its inspirations, like Walsh is getting out from under the shadow of his influences and shaking off the déjà vu. Across all ten tracks, Walsh’s aesthetic snaps into clearer focus—even though it’s an aesthetic heavily predicated upon ambiguity.

As before, Midnight Marker’s breezy melodies and lilting grooves make for a nice, chill listen—good morning-coffee music, cooking music, countryside-drive music. But this is nothing like the studied, stoned remove of anything you’ll find filed under “#chill” on any streaming service. His synths have real bite. His drums, recorded with real sticks on real skins, are enviably muscled. Walsh has said that one of his takeaways from both highlife and funk was that the guitar could function primarily as a percussive instrument, and he continues down that path here, backing up more melodically outgoing riffs and runs with plucked pulse and flicker.

His rhythmic sensibility has gotten more adventurous, too, with slow/fast beats fracturing heavy downstrokes into wiggly explosions of movement. The andante bounce of “Tomorrow” works like a springboard, sending Ethio-jazz keyboard runs somersaulting through the air. In “Gateway,” a quickening-and-slowing tremolo gives a synth lead an elastic quality, as though the music’s innards were being pulled like taffy. “The Keeper” uses its half-speed beat to spin a kaleidoscopic array of finely detailed sounds: fidgety bassline, vocoder, chiming keyboards, and what sound like three or four or maybe even five discrete guitar patterns, including one treated to sound like steel drums. In virtually every measure of music on the album, there is more going on than you can actively focus on. Yet at the same time, there’s an overriding sense of simplicity baked into its playfully wistful melodies and harmonies. In that contradiction between complexity and directness lies much of the music’s subtle magic.

Most of Shy Layers’ music remains primarily instrumental, but he does try out new vocal techniques here. On his debut, he took the unusual step of hiring a guest singer off Craigslist; this time, he says, he invited vocalists whose voices he admired, but who he didn’t know personally, and their contributions—Luther Vandross-like bellowing, airy harmonies, even the occasional country tinge—help extend the music’s expressive reach. Throughout, Walsh’s own voice swims through vocoder and talk box, the omnipresent processing even more intricate than before. But the vocals are rarely the focal point; they’re as swirled as his contrapuntal guitar and synth lines.

It was often difficult to tell if Shy Layers’ debut was the work of a full band or a single musician, and the new one muddies the water even further. Midnight Marker inherits the grand tradition of lone weirdos making humble bedroom pop from the materials at hand. Yet, for a solo project, it also feels unusually ego-free, as though all his inspirations had swirled together in a kind of imagined utopia. It’s a singular vision that contains multitudes.

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