Wallscenery Demos‘ Check This! is exactly the type of release that I love covering in Independent Clauses. James Hicken, the mastermind behind Wallscenery Demos, is a gifted songwriter who combines disparate genres and seemingly incoherent elements into one seamless album. Hicken’s reach extends from rap to indie dance to Beach Boys-esque pop to modern folk, and yet the songs never sound kitschy or amateur.
The album plays out not as individual songs, but a full album. This is encouraged by Hicken’s prominent use of interludes, which range from twelve to fifty-five seconds. A recording of rain, a voice sample clipped from an advertisement and crowds cheering are just some of the elements he uses to segue one song to the next. And the segues are important, because of the aforementioned genre span that Hicken creates. Folk guitar-led gem “I’m Not Around” would butt up against the low-end thump of the downtempo, Portishead-esque piece “Ain’t Got Nuthin to Say” unless the low-fi buzz of “[one of these days one]” wasn’t a transition. Similarly, the stuttering beats of “Watch Your Back” would overrun the gloriously sedate “My Highest Regards” if the messy dissolution of “[one of these days two]” didn’t intervene.
The best part about Check This! is that there’s not a quality distinction between Hicken’s various genre choices. He makes everything flow perfectly; he knows when to combine genres, and when to leave well enough alone. “My Highest Regards” is a straight-up melancholy indie-pop song, and it is great. Adding anything else to it would have made it kitschy. Hicken’s solid decisions as a songwriter and incredibly strong control of mood make this album into the great piece of music that it is.
There are some problems; Hicken’s voice is often the weak point in his music. He knows it; he often covers his voice in reverb or distortion, drops it low in the mix, and even sings about it. It’s not the fault of his songwriting skill: the compositions are solid, and the vocal parts he writes for himself are good. It’s just that his voice is often unsuited to pull off the things that his brain creates. This is unfortunate, as several songs here are not as good as they could be simply because of a poor vocal performance. But at points he shows that he knows how to use his voice to his advantage, as “My Highest Regards” is excellent because of the way his vocals work within the music.
Check This! is an incredibly interesting album. It plays like a downtempo indie-rock band (like Pedro the Lion) collaborating with a downtempo producer (like Danger Mouse or Portishead), guesting the indie-fied pop skills of MGMT. There’s enough energy to keep the album from dragging, but the thing revels in being morose. And because Hicken doesn’t try to hide who he is behind slick studio production, Check This! becomes a unique and interesting album that could not have been made by anyone else. I sincerely hope that Hicken keeps writing under the Wallscenery Demos name, or finds a collaborative foil or two to enhance his songwriting prowess with vocal expertise. Either way, there’s gonna be a lot more interesting music from James Hicken, because his songwriting vision is unique.