Marian Hill Bring Swagger and Saxophone to Rough Trade NYC
In our increasingly boundary-free music world, a mix of electronic production techniques, hip-hop beats and R&B melodies characterizes almost all of today’s forward-thinking pop. That applies whether you’re listening to the Top 40 or up and coming acts like Marian Hill, who performed last night (April 22) at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn. This duo – Samantha Gongol and Jeremy Lloyd – know the ingredients of chic in 2015.
Let’s be more specific about that sound. Marian Hill combine an admiration for the space of Drake compositions with the percussive force of early ‘00s Neptunes beats, especially the ones found on Clipse records. The high-hats are important, too, always waiting to pounce with a rapid-fire barrage derived from southern hip-hop. The final piece of the puzzle is Gongol, who handles vocal duties, displaying an idiosyncratic tone but with some grounding in R&B style.
Why has this sonic collage been so successful? Versatility is important. This assortment of sounds – like '90s R&B before it – meticulously blends the soft with the hard; it can soundtrack a party or serve as high-end lounging music. All you have to do to make the switch? Turn down the volume.
This sound combination (or some variation on it) has also been especially important for launching female vocalists into orbit regardless of genre. In R&B, you can find Tinashe; in pop, you have Banks and Lorde; in the indie world, try Jessy Lanza. This type of music is not restricted to the ladies – see How To Dress Well or Partynextdoor – but at the moment, it's a durable form that is welcoming to female performers (again, like '90s R&B).
Marian Hill emerged in 2014 with the Play EP. This year, they followed it with Sway, an EP on Republic Records, which is surely a sign they're impressing the right people. Sway contains three songs from Play plus four new tracks.
At Rough Trade, Gongol and Lloyd were joined on stage by Steve Davit on saxophone and bass. Sax? That’s right. Brass spent a long time out of style after synthesizers became popular (and cheap) in the ‘80s, but there's been a resurgence of horns during the past several years – especially the once-derided lone sax – in most realms of popular music: see M83’s “Midnight City,” Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” and Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty.”
“Talk Dirty,” in particular, is more than just a musical reference point: Marian Hill’s most explosive track to date, “One Time,” plays like an answer to Derulo’s hit. While Derulo catalogs a stream of international hook-ups with no strings attached, Gongol has a different agenda in mind. “You like the hit and run, you say it's all for fun / you think that I'm the one for you,” she sang at Rough Trade. She followed that up with a warning: “Boy if you wanna go, I would not mind / but I'm not the kind of drum you play one time.” Lloyd’s beat isn’t far from a DJ Mustard track – it's all snaps and sputtering cymbals while a little sax fillip drives the melody. Live, Davit laid into a skronking solo as spirited as the comparable sample used in the Derulo tune. This is hit material.
Another song, “Talk To Me,” (which is not yet released) also sounds like a possible smash, melding Gongol’s swaggering delivery with a pleasingly brittle beat. But again and again, Davit’s horn was what excited the crowd, compelling head-bobs and sashays. Davit’s bass playing, though nimble, sometimes seemed overly warm next to the group’s barren and forceful electronic landscapes.
It’s not surprising that several of these songs have the irresistibility and accessibility of hits; Marian Hill are clever songwriters. “Got It” uses the sax like a drop in dubstep – the track built and built until Davitt’s part offered sweet, squalling release. Gongol’s voice, multi-tracked in all the right places, leaned towards jazz crooning at a few moments, suggesting a ‘50s party several decades ahead of its time. And “Wasted” played with words like a country song. “You’re wasted,” Gongol sang. Then the punchline: “You’re wasted on me.”
After their set, the group returned for an encore but announced that they didn’t actually have another song to play. (They’d already augmented their still-small catalog with a cover of Kanye West's “Love Lockdown.”) But that didn't stand in the way of a resourceful group with their finger on the pulse: they just played “One Time” one more time.