Reviews of recent homemade EPs by Cavalier:Cavalier and Drew Cooke.

sara cover art
Cavalier, by Alex Smith

[Updated] Home production software has been a mixed blessing. ProTools and similar programs have decimated the recording studio business as people can record at home or a semi-domestic context. That made possible a lot of CDs that might never have been recorded if the artists had to wait until they could afford studio time, but it also enabled musicians to make music that really could have used an experienced set of ears to ask, Really? You think that’s a good idea? Still, the promise of the technology is that it allows musicians to avoid all the traditional gatekeepers and get their music into the world as they imagine it. Sometimes that’s a good thing.   

A month ago, I attended a CD-listening party for the DJ and producer Cavalier:Cavalier’s Sara EP on the strength of his enigmatic, hand-delivered invitation that came with a date, a place, and a now-defunct URL——and nothing else. I wasn’t sure what I was going to, but I was curious. The party followed its own path to the debut of his home-recorded five-song EP, so much so that I bailed before I heard a note and didn’t actually listen to it until a few weeks ago. 

I’m glad I waited. It would have been nice to hear his dark, dreamy beats through better speakers than mine, but while it’s not quite music to nod to, Cav’s not trying to run the party either. Energy’s not a priority, though the EP doesn’t suffer for the lack of it. Sara opens with “Jenasis,” a big, airy instrumental with a detached voice pinballing like a lost soul through a soundscape defined by a massive bass, skittering percussion, and slightly melancholy synths. “Child of the Night” follows it with a slow, stately piano that picks up a companion keyboard part, both of which drop out for a big, lonely bass that solos while Nasty raps to a woman—Sara?—about getting high and wild together. The combination isn’t erotic, but listening to it feels like we're eavesdropping on someone's private moment.

Cav’s cinematically-scaled, synth-driven sound is appealing if a little familiar. His reliance on a handful of parts to do the work gives his music clarity and space, so when his kick drum thumps, it hits like a heartbeat trying to blow out a rib cage.

The EP’s weakest idea is “Girls Are Guns,” with a rap by Gums Murphy that wades into predictable girl trouble lyrics. They’re not seriously problematic—probably only a 3 on the Social Media Outrageometer—but when the EP is largely instrumental, the few words there are carry more weight. 

The interesting question is what comes next. Cav is likely looking to provide beats for rappers, but my favorite tracks on Sara were instrumental because they set a clearer mood. It would be interesting to hear the vocal tracks without the raps to see if he left out something useful when he made room for the emcees, or if they took the edge off his tracks. Still, a cool EP.

Drew Cooke’s Circles & Cycles has been sitting in my “To Review” pile for much of the year, accompanied by a hand-written note asking for a listen. I’d periodically check it out, but when I couldn't get a handle on it and had another five projects that needed my attention, it went back into the stack. The lead track, “It’s Just a Cycle,” has a good chorus that reminds me of Beck, more because Cooke’s voice swings that way than because it’s something Beck would make. That and a cool keyboard riff grab me, but the clatter of loud, snappy drums next to Cooke’s strobed voice made it slightly hard to focus on when I was distracted. Now, I find the contrasting fuzz on the strobed voice engaging next to the crispness of the drums, and the clear simplicity of the chorus with the title phrase pays off the juxtaposition.

Circles & Cycles is an EP that would almost certainly be different and maybe weaker with a studio pro to give Cooke feedback. Perhaps an edited Cooke song would deliver a more powerful punch, much like when R.E.M. finally decided to let people hear what Michael Stipe was saying, but I doubt he’d get the sort of weird emotional whip that starts “Keep On.” An electronically processed voice laughs mockingly then stutters out a few “I”s, and it sounds like a found vocal that will be used ironically. But the stutter resolves into the phrase, “I’ve got to go keep on trying,” and when a simple piano line answers him, the song becomes a naked self-pep talk about the need to get back in the romance game. Like The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, Cooke gets emotional mileage out of a plainspoken vocal, perhaps more than he might because my guess is that the processed vocal hides his limits as a singer. Even if it doesn’t, the fuzzed, processed voice literalizes the singer’s turmoil as he tries to open his heart again while putting on a front.

Throughout, Cooke makes compelling songs out of unlikely elements. He particularly likes putting simple melodies and natural instruments next to busy, textured percussion loops, and no one since Jim Jarmusch in his early films has used stops so effectively. Parts cut in and out and disappear for long stretches before reappearing, but in the end it’s all startlingly addictive. Ironically, the elements that make Circles & Cycles so effective are the ones that made it hard to start with.

Updated June 4, 9:41 a.m.

Cavalier's name has been corrected. It's Cavalier:Cavalier, and he is more accurately identified as a DJ and producer.