Release Date: May 24th 2018
Well-produced pop, hop hop and R&B-influenced albums undoubtedly conjure up images of an artist recording in an unspeakably expensive studio with the aid of a large PR team and all-you-can-drink champagne. As a result, it’s hard to imagine one could produce such a product in a humble basement with the aid of a single microphone and a cheap audio interface. 18 year old Cincinnati-based artist M.Lowe successfully defies the odds and shows us that limited facilities are no excuse for not being able to create a fantastic set of recordings. Armed with a vast array of influences, synth samples and vocal hooks, M.Lowe released his debut EP ‘Ataraxia’ with the intention of showcasing his passion for songwriting and storytelling. Staying true to the EP’s title, ‘Ataraxia’ retains a serene, chilled-out vibe on each track whilst experimenting with several different genres and pushing the limits of artistic creativity.
‘Blush’ immediately establishes the serene nature of his sound as stated by the EP’s title; eerie synths reminiscent of wind open the track whilst delayed percussion evokes thoughts of chirping crickets and crashing sea waves. The entrance of the vocals lets us know it’s clear M.Lowe understands the necessity of keeping his voice a top priority throughout his work; the octave-doubled lead line features lo-fi production which is later contrasted with a set of layered, reverberated backing vocal tracks.
As ’21st Century’ began, I was pleasantly surprised by the radical, yet very fitting change of genre. Drums and string synths introduce an urban, Motown feel before the clean, pop-sounding vocal track enters. M.Lowe continues to actively experiment with his vocal lines, making use of the canon technique which works very well. Particular praise goes to the way in which he launches into the chorus, truly bringing home the lyrical themes of ‘feeling down’ and ‘catching feelings’, undoubtedly speaking on a personal level to every teenager and young adult listening.
‘Luna’ has more of a hip hop feel and continues to experiment with the vocal production, showcasing a tightly-tuned and rich vocal track. Considering this EP was recorded with a single microphone, it’s impressive how M.Lowe manages to make his voice sound so different on each track. The lyrics are much more wordy on this track when compared to the previous two, which lets us know that he truly caters to the needs of the song rather than the convenience of a single style. Another thing that becomes clear by this point is that he actively avoids ‘waffling’; every track feels fully developed without being over three and a half minutes. This shows he has a real no-nonsense quality about him and a very efficient approach to songwriting.
‘Forest’ is a more experimental and ambient track which truly conjures images of actually being in a forest. Ethereal synth sounds and plucked folk instruments set the scene before the laid-back vocal line enters. This is quickly contrasted with one of the best punchlines I’ve heard in a long time: ‘Fuck you for leaving me/Just need someone to believe in me’. Whilst the hook is delivered in a laid-back manner, its layered and electronic production gives it real angst. This lets us know that whilst one may say such a line in an indifferent or apathetic manner, it carries a lot of baggage and stirs up all sorts of emotions on the interior.
‘Wish (Remix) w/ Skye’ sees the Motown feel return and showcases an interesting flute-type synth over lively-sounding keys and bass. Particular praise goes to the drop-out section of this track, where the percussion and lively synths are removed and his voice moves to the bass register. By this point I begin to wonder how his tracks would work in a live setting – I’m not aware if he’s actively performing but I’m confident he’d go down well as a live act. Whilst he could gig solo by making use of the backing tracks from the EP, I think he’d be incredibly convincing with a full band. A possible lineup could feature himself on guitar and vocals backed by a keyboardist, bassist and drummer.
‘Drugs In My System’ opens with humorously contrapuntal layers of plucked guitar, which I felt drew strong comparisons to the short-term rushing thought process often associated with substances such as cannabis. The short-term thought idea continues with overlapping vocal lines whilst the instrumental break between each verse showcases a tightly-timed section of guitar harmonies over dry, compressed drums. The instrumental break can’t help but conjure feelings of being zoned out on the couch whilst under the influence, watching TV or simply enjoying the experience. A standout element of this track is a break of a single beat where the instrumentation stops and M.Lowe angrily shouts ‘fuck!’ I know from my own experience of home recording that this was most likely captured after a botched take; this shows that whilst many of his tracks have a very polished feel to them, he isn’t afraid showcase the human element of moments like these to remind us that we’re listening to a young musician grinding away in his basement.
Overall, ‘Ataraxia’ confidently showcases a very talented young musician firmly finding his feet at the start of a promising music career. Whilst it’s clear he’s still attempting to find his sound by experimenting with a few different genres, the EP remains congruent in feel and flow whilst still being adequately varied. M.Lowe shows he has a natural knack for songwriting and production by placing emphasis on his voice, using harmony to its full capabilities and retaining a sense of humour through his lyrics. The production is outstanding given the limited facilities, which just goes to show that a lack of gear is no excuse for not being able to create a high-quality product. Highly recommended for any chillout fan.