If Thom Yorke’s The Eraser got busy with James Blake’s Debut, Jack Grace’s River would be their unexpected love child. After a busy year of collabs with the likes of Ngaiire and Paul Mac, Grace is finally stepping out of the shadows with his debut EP. Although lit up in a spotlight of his own now, this singer-producer-player still hovers very much in the darkness. He draws on R&B, post-dub step, glitch and soul, unapologetically blending textures, genres and ideas. River is raw, brave and erratic, the unfurling of each song a series of sonic surprises. River is a precious first listen.
Its aptly titled opening track, Intro, is an unusual greeting. A far away drum, hit just the once, follows soft static, sounding like an outtake. This kind of randomness is something that reappears a lot throughout this EP. Meandering jazz-soul chords played on Rhodes sounding keys escalate into a frantic solo. A searing high-pitched, wavering synth wallops you with tension, which then bleeds into the first full track, Nice To Meet You. The drums clang, industrial and sparse. Grace has a lazy grittiness to his voice. His words spill out, unrefined and direct.
“She looked at me as though I had two faces / That she knew that I didn’t know myself / Guess I’ve been living like I’ve got two faces / Guess I’ve been living like someone else / It’s Friday night and I’m standing in the shower / I got the whole damn house to myself / I got the night planned down to the hour / It’s what you do when you live by yourself.”
The first single, Hills, opens as a pop-ballad, with keys and drums, featuring Buoy on vocals. She sets up a solid hook, and then Grace’s vocals take over, sitting atop of a relentless, repetitively struck, deep dark note played on piano. Vocal samples and glitch drums uproot the song far from where it began. Church organ floods the background. Again, the tension Grace creates here is palpable. Finally, a harmonic lift delivers a release, and the hook returns sung over acoustic piano. Little vocal snippets and squealing electronic samples flicker. A ballad-style solo piano ends this song. Hills is a three-in-oner, all these parts are tied together by the return of unlikely sounds that feel uncomfortable when you’re in them, but from a few steps back, make sense.
Save You is dark as hell. A low grumbling synth and soft fluttering drums that hardly pronounce a beat sit underneath Grace’s vocals. This intensity is broken again, by a series of sweet chords played on a synth, and his vocals finally fall into a rhythm.
“I know I’m not a saviour, I know that I can’t save ya, But I’m so afraid to leave. I’m so afraid.”
The relief doesn’t last long, and that original idea returns. Grace drags you down deep into his griminess, and occasionally, considerately, lifts you up out of it with sweet lush pads and vocals that are gently reassuring.
Acoustic piano leads us into All Lost, this EP’s second single and final track. The keys climb and fall, and the bass lines are fluid, roaming across crisp break beats. His voice follows those lead lines, the melodies simple and repetitive. The drums sound like they are being dragged underwater. The synth re-emerges, pulling us back up with its clarity. Eventually, Grace’s voice turns to liquid anyway, drenched in processing, laden with emotion. His vocal drifts further and further away until they disappear completely.
Grace sounds very influenced by Blake and Yorke, the maestros of this field, but he also establishes his own sound, in his own right. River‘s unrefined-ness, its messiness, its murkiness, and the sweet release from all this, deserves many listens. Once the surprise wears off, going back again allows you to absorb it differently, to dig deeper. Its spaciousness allows every tiny tweak of sound to speak for itself. River exposes instability, ugliness, and discomfort, presenting small pockets of freedom through moments of beauty.
‘River’ is out now. Grab a copy here.