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Joji: In Tongues, but Out of Touch

Beyond

Joji: In Tongues, but Out of Touch

JD Calvelli

Album art courtesy of Joji

Review by JD Calvelli

At first, it’s hard to take surrealist-comedian-turned-multi-instrumentalist George Miller seriously. Prior to his rise to musical prominence as a member of the burgeoning media collective 88rising, Miller was already a successful Youtube personality by the name of Filthy Frank, specializing in a unique brand of off-kilter, abrasive, and offensive humor. His first forays into music embodied the spirit of his Youtube channel, and under the name Pink Guy, he released two hip-hop-inspired albums. Abrasive, offensive lyrics, overly-saturated, heavy production and the random recurrence of the ukulele solidified those albums as parodies of the genre. From there, Miller began releasing under the Joji moniker, and with the new name came a major overhaul of his musical identity. 

Joji’s debut Chloe Burbank Vol. I was marked by prevalent usage of melodic piano, sample heavy production and a propulsive drumbeat backing.  Joji’s sequel A-side/B-side i don’t want to waste my time/rain on me maintained the theme of Burbank, but muted and dulled its elements for Joji to prove himself as a competent vocalist, in addition to producer and rapper. Considering his quite varied discography, his first commercial EP, In Tongues, had been shrouded in mystery prior to its recent drop. Which of the many Millers were listeners to expect?

“Will He” opens the EP. It’s a slow and methodical note to an ex-lover, driven by a pulsating bassline and subtly aggressive drumbeat that provides the track with a constant sense of gradual, forward motion. A muted piano melody combined with Joji’s airy and breathy delivery of evocative lyrics give the track a spacey, almost dreamlike feel befitting of its vibe as a late-night retrospection. It serves as an excellent opening track, very reminiscent of i don’t want to waste my time/rain on me, by setting out a clear intention of sound and the theme of relationships right from the get-go.

Therein lies my first issue with the record: Joji sticks too close to the established sound palette of “Will He,” especially on the next two tracks on the EP, “Pills” and “Demons.” Both tracks contain very similar baselines, very similar drumbeats, and a very similar vocal delivery of very thematically similar lyrics to “Will He.” Joji integrates slight deviations from his formula, namely replacing his signature muted piano with a muted guitar on “Pills” and emphasizing a boom bap backing on “Demons,” but ultimately these small attempts to differentiate do not do enough. Miller has already proven himself a creative producer on past projects, why tie himself down to such a repetitive, derivative style?

Thankfully, Miller redeems himself on “Window,” my favorite track of the album, by reaching back into his discography for inspiration. Harkening back to Burbank, a bouncy tempo driven by aggressive, but still dulled, snares and hi-hats supports Joji on his most varied and impressive vocal performance on the album. The song addresses the issues of “Pills” and “Demons” by deviating from the soundscape established by “Will He” enough to sound distinct and interesting, but still feel as though it belongs on the the same album as “Will He.” The upbeat nature of the track starkly contrasts with the dark theme of depression that runs like a current through the lyrics. Perhaps this dichotomy is meant to be symbolic of the experience of depression itself, seeming to be okay on the surface while underneath lies sad truth, or perhaps not. The song’s expert crafting makes the listener think in a way that no other song on the album does. However, it should be noted that this shift in theme comes entirely out of the blue, and certainly breaks the continuity of the album. Even still, I believe the album needed more songs like this.

Sadly, this brief glimpse of a unique Joji is immediately snuffed out by “Bitter Fuck,” my least favorite track of the album. The guitar from “Pills” is back, and with a vengeance. Harsh, biting, and attention-grabbing in all the wrong ways, it pulls the listener too far out of the soundscape that Miller worked to establish through the first four songs of the album. It almost feels as though Miller realized the lack of differentiation in his earlier songs, and attempted to make up for it all on one track. The result is immersion-breaking guitar and needless repetition of the least engaging lyrics on the album. Even stranger still, the song is an introspective cut about Joji himself, and as such introduces yet another theme into the mix, and does so right at the end of the album. 

Joji delivers on “worldstar money (interlude),” but not in the way the album required. It begins with a ukulele chord progression, an excellent treat for long time listeners of Miller. The progression is then chopped, screwed, and backed by snap clap drums along the vein of “Window.” Joji clearly shows his creativity as a producer on this track, but I’m left wondering in what way this song is an interlude; Perhaps it could have better served if placed in between “Demons” and “Window.” The track’s short lyrics center around Joji questioning his own identity within the context of a relationship, and as such would have made for an excellent transition in between the first three relationship songs, and the more introspective fourth and fifth songs. As it stands, it is a poor closing track, as it wraps up none of the thematic elements of the rest of the album, nor does it synthesize them into a palatable format for the listener to explore after the album ends.

Joji tried to do a lot on this short EP. His vocals and lyrics shine through on tracks like “Window”, but on other tracks like “Demons” are de-emphasized in favor of production. But, his production leans very heavily on one particular style, with brief moments of musically fitting uniqueness shining through only on “Window” and “worldstar money (interlude).” The record commits neither to giving Joji a platform to present effective vocals, nor to showing off Joji’s prowess as a producer. Instead it straddles a fuzzy line between the two, resulting in a confused mixed-bag that leaves quite a bit to be desired. But, its elements of greatness are great enough for me to be hopeful for his next project. If on that project Joji were to retain his ability to create meaningful soundscape, take a bit more risk with production befitting of that soundscape, and tighten up his thematic intention and vocal presentation, I think it would have the potential to be a masterpiece.