Traditional rhythm and blues has always carried the melody with the morose. Twinges of sadness lingers on the breath, baring emotion through repeated refrains, but at times the musicians implement poppier parts to drive listeners into a more collective, dancing spirit. But Charleston-based Janise Robinson, aka Niecy Blues, is concocting a headier slant on R&B that’s slightly sinister, and feels like it’s operating in the shadows to illuminate the darker parts of the soul.
Robinson claims that her music precedes her, like an imaginary float that pulls her downstream in a daze. An accomplished singer, the producer grabs her vocals, chops, loops and swirls them around across in a swelling wind; a formula that peeks its head throughout. Opener 1111 illuminates a foreboding bass, rising and falling key sequences, and her trademark wispy overdubs create the cherry-on-top atmosphere. On this debut album Exit Simulation, Niecy Blues is on a mission to unmask suppressed feelings, conversing with herself through call and response takes that mimic the album cover: an outer-version of oneself trying to unearth what’s hidden within the actual body.
Likewise, the listening experience is a hallucinogenic one. The Nite B4’s repeated bass undertow battles with piano trills and throbbing foreground noises that feel to be impending doom that doesn’t fully materialise. That same prominent bass sound plays the sidekick across the board. Often noodling, almost improvisational at times, while repeated licks lull you into a state of bliss otherwise. On the title track, a rare occasion shows the instrument slowly bleed into the ether once the singer’s anguish voices rise to a more dramatic, spellbinding crescendo. Everything either feels raw, right in front of you, then immediately sounds like it’s being made live in the bathroom next door.
It’s that can’t-place-it soundscape that makes the record feel otherworldly, and Niecy Blues implements production trickery for each instrument to tantalise the senses. The album’s drum sounds could be reflective of those made in a tinny basement Burial-style, as on Violently Rooted, get slowed to down-tempo trip-hop (U Care), provide heartbeat-pumping scattiness (The Architect), or become measured hats ‘n’ snare claps on closer Cascade. In one album highlight Analysis Paralysis, the slightly offbeat pats take a seemingly straightforward percussive idea into strangeness.
After a childhood spent in Oklahoma, the musician discovered the power of ambient music at church, where the array of delay pedals and overlapped choruses evoke experience over anything else. Those are used heavy-handedly, so much so that the record often feels like a looped riff on the same song idea. It’s the short bouts of experimentation that really play off, including U Care’s muffled field recordings, or its percussion sample that evokes Zach Hill’s noise-rock playing style. The melancholy, unfinished “If I’m still around…” vocal that seeps into the instrumentals on Violently Rooted is beautiful if not saddening, and Soma’s more uplifting lullaby tones share the same cuddly effect of the Smashing Pumpkins song of the same name. The track also gets the mind boggling featuring snappy jazz piano improvisations scattered about, as wonderfully throwaway as the “easy come, easy go” refrain.
Whether indulging in the Brave New World-inspired happiness elixir, facing fears, or channelling collective outer-body experience, Niecy Blues’ first LP channels a singular sound that’s wholly her own. It translates her meditative writing style into a likewise heady mood for the listener—a successful passing of one person’s thought process to another which, with a few more attention-clinching moments, could expand this one-lane float down the river to a white water ride of thrills and spills before the eventual solace.
For fans of: Demae, L’Rain, Dwen
‘Exit Simulation’ by Niecy Blues is released on 10th November on Kranky Records.
Words by Elliot Burr