opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN
Chicago’s Mike Perry and Austin Kjeultes tried to make their names as rap producers before forming Supreme Cuts, and it shows. They should probably try breaking into that racket again now that they’ve established themselves somewhat, since, at their best, Supreme Cuts are essentially producers. They spend most of sophomore effort Divine Ecstasy making a robust cast of guest vocalists (only one full track lacks a singer), not all of whom are especially gifted, sound downright amazing. The hook to “Down” is ripped straight from the Drake playbook, but over a bracing, sped-up drum track and a cleverly positioned smear of artificial strings, the melody glows and comes to life; from derivative elements Supreme Cuts create a song the vocalists can inhabit in a way that’s all their own. The minimal “Isis,” with rapping from Haleek Maul, manages the tricky task of sustaining compelling momentum while superficially adhering to a jerky stop-start rhythmic backbone. It’s easy to imagine any of last year’s hottest rappers – say, Chance or A$AP Rocky – wanting these guys’ fingerprints all over their next smash hits. And it’s not just rap they know how to work with: for instance, Shy Girls’ Dan Vidmar’s velveteen R&B croon finds its ideal setting in celestial slow jam “Cocktails.” Supreme Cuts certainly know how to dress up any vocal take in a way that serves the singer’s best interests, and moreover, they sound hip. Like any 2010s electronic act worth its salt with even a passing interest in urban radio, the duo swirl a bunch of distinct sounds together into a lush, amorphous mélange: southern hip-hop, trip-hop, deep house, juke and footwork, IDM, new age, and the moody atmospherics of recent pop out of Toronto are all present and accounted for. The resulting aesthetic, though it hews closely to the act’s limper, undercooked 2012 debut Whispers In The Dark, is the most contemporary possible combination, a very Now approach to a very Now palette.
Tellingly, however, Supreme Cuts really need their guest vocalists, whether they’re as faceless as Polica’s Channy or as dynamic and captivating as Mahaut Mondino, who sends twin highlights “Gone” and “Brown Flowers” straight up into the stratosphere. The vocals tie these productions together, ground and focus them. Take the singers away and you’re left with, well, not a whole lot. The title track here is a twinkling six-minute, vaguely IDM-inflected instrumental that runs about four minutes too long. It’s lovely but listless, inarticulate, and ultimately empty. Towards the end, there’s thirty seconds of menacing power-drill bass before the central melody blossoms fully and then self-destructs into a fit of inspired drum programming. It’s a wonderful conclusion that might have better served as the foundation of the song, but without a singer to play off of, Supreme Cuts have trouble effectively arranging their compositional elements. By and large, their best ideas come when they’re building songs around vocals and conventional pop structures. The best thing here is easily “Gone,” which finds the duo detonating a house-y vibe in the middle of a haunting piano number, but its success derives from the way these decision interact with Mondino’s stunning performance. It’s a great song, and the production is complex and thoughtful, but without Mondino to propel it, it’d come close to a throwaway.
The root of the problem is that, though they may be smart and have sharp ears, Perry and Kjeultes simply don’t make music that’s distinctive or innovative. Divine Ecstasy is shallow and safe. It doesn’t push the envelope at all. Mondino’s whooping falsetto is a far more daring risk than anything happening production-wise on this record. Although the albums don’t sound much alike, I can’t help but compare this one to Disclosure’s Settle, another producers’ record with a large cast of vocalists. The British brothers made a dance record that was both based in the hottest sounds du jour and developed those sounds in a singular way, cleaning up and tightening the basic elements of U.K. bass and deep house in a way that made them amenable to pop radio. Disclosure songs sound like Disclosure songs even when our attention is fixed on a particular guest vocalist, but they never subsume their guests’ individuality, either. It’s a challenging balancing act that Settle accomplished with aplomb. Two albums in, Supreme Cuts don’t manage anything so remarkable. It’s for the best that these songs consistently defer to their singers’ personalities, because the music itself, immaculate though it may be, has little to speak of.
That’s not the worst thing in the world – at the very least, Supreme Cuts deliver some very strong tracks, and there’s loads of potential here in the producers’ instincts and craftsmanship. Yet the entertaining, atmospherically rich, and effectively propulsive Divine Ecstasy is music very much of this particular moment in pop, but not of the next one. There’s little here that calls attention to itself after the initial listen or that, “Gone” aside, will still sound exciting come a few months or a year. Supreme Cuts know how to construct a track, but if it’s staying power they’re after, they’ll need to develop a more original sense of what their music is, what it can do, and the places it can go. C+