The Oui EP. a four-track collaboration between New York collective American Anymen and French artist Lise, has two basic settings: yearning for the past, and trying to cope with the present. The tension between then and now is reflected in the album's sonic landscape - somehow or other, it sounds like a fuzzy DIY bedroom recording and a sumptuous soul classic at the same time. It's as if The Moldy Peaches had a baby with If You Leave Me Now by Chicago.
This, the EP's smoothest and softest track, is a fond yet melancholy ode to someone who disappeared long ago and left a gap that no one has been able to fill since. An upright bass and an elegant flugelhorn part give this song a rich, textured warmth that - like a cosy bed on a cold February morning - you really do hate to leave behind. You feel content and comfortably nostalgic as you listen, but soon you realise that the song is gradually building towards its conclusion, and you're left with a sick, sad feeling once it's over - as if you're watching the dying embers of a fire whose heat you know you'll never feel again.
No time to think too deeply about it though because here's track 2, Less Complex, to hurl us back to the present whether we like it or not. This song occupies entirely the opposite end of the Oui EP spectrum: where Nobody Makes Me was soft of focus and rose-tinted of spectacle, Less Complex is harsh and honest. Ploughing a far fuzzier furrow than the preceding song, it takes a lo-fi look at how reality is actually quite a lot less complicated than we're sometimes tricked into believing: sometimes a good thing is just a good thing, and sometimes a shitty situation is just a shitty situation. And sometimes, no matter how much spin you administer or how many flowers you use to obscure that slashed wrist (check out the Oui EP's cover art), there's nothing you can do to change the truth of the matter.
Or, as American Anymen's Brett Sullivan puts it:
"The temperature every year is a record-setting high, and there are still people denying climate change. I feel the summers getting hotter and the winters shrinking in NYC. I don't need a PhD to tell me we are destroying the environment. Things are less complex then they seem."
The remaining two tracks seem to be particularly personal for Sullivan, who cites "my time in prison" and "my 13-year battle with heroin addiction" as two experiences that informed his songwriting for the Oui EP. Built upon an insistent, faintly tribal tom beat, Does Anybody Still Think of Me finds Sullivan worrying that everyone has forgotten about him - presumably because he's just finished a stint in jail, although the song works equally well as a fable about the fleeting nature of celebrity. The EP then closes with H, and this is where the buzzy timbres of Less Complex and the velvety warmth of Nobody Makes Me Smile Like You Did finally achieve a sort of reconciliation. We even get a second dose of Tracy Brooks' gorgeous flugelhorn playing.
As an account of what it's like to be addicted to heroin, H is surprisingly ambivalent. Lines about itchy skin, vomit, and "lazy veins" don't make the experience sound particularly pleasant, but the track's rich, almost luxuriant sound - along with recurring references to feeling "free" - evoke the good feelings that presumably accompany each injection.
But the overwhelming feeling is one of repetitiveness. At the heart of H is the listless strum of an acoustic guitar, and even as the flugelhorn soars and Sullivan's words conjure up all sorts of different images, this guitar part never really changes - it just goes around and around in circles. The lyrics, too, have a distinctly circular structure: it all keeps coming back to the same line. "Once a day, every dark morn, pull up my socks, take a shot in my arm." More than anything, H makes heroin addiction sound monotonous - it sounds like shooting up became crushingly routine for Sullivan, just as travelling to work or mowing the lawn can seem crushingly routine to the likes of you and me.
And so the overwhelming feeling of Oui as a whole is a rather sad one: you feel by the end that whereas the past is a soft, sweet, happy place, the present is a gloomy, lonely grind with countless troubles looming overhead and no salvation in sight. If that sounds like your kind of ball game - and yes, I enjoyed listening to these songs very much - then the Oui EP is available from Bandcamp as a free download.