Unusual might be the perfect descriptor for Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote, a future soul four-piece waging a personal war on all things traditional in a traditionalist’s genre. Starting with 2011’s “Tawk Tomahawk,” the band has set fire to the neo-soul rulebook, paving its own, unique path forward. Whereas many acts seem content paying repetitive homage to Prince and Marvin Gaye, Nai Palm and her conspirators have taken a basic formula and bent it beyond recognition. Pulsating electro-funk, oddball R&B, smooth jazz and gyroscopic tempo-shifts abound. Unlike many of its peers, Hiatus Kaiyote understands that the best path to pay respect isn’t to play the imitator’s game: it’s to push the envelope. “Choose Your Weapon,” the band’s much-anticipated sophomore album, does exactly that.
It’s immediately apparent that the band’s second album isn’t going to be straightforward. Album opener “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk” snakes through multiple moods and genres with electric fervor, snapping any inattentive listeners to attention. Dream-laden neo-soul worship quickly gives way to a smooth jazz groove smoothed by Palm’s river-of-glass vocals. It’s a beautiful start, but it doesn’t last. The song boils over like a cauldron of volatile elements. Funk, skat, and electronic overdubs surge and swell in a feverish rush. The drums crash. The synthesizers swell. It’s exhilarating, and it’s just the beginning. The rest of the album follows suit though it always reshuffles its deck of tricks. “Borderline With my Atoms,” for instance, never roars into a bull’s head rush of an end. Rather, it lulls the listener in with its slow, dream-like rhythm and Palm’s low-register croons. Essentially, it’s the yin to the opener’s yang. Everything from the first prelude to the final notes of the record falls somewhere in the space between, cementing Hiatus Kaiyote as a band with a remarkably varied arsenal.
Hiatus Kaiyote also deserves praise for the record’s crisp, warm sound, which invigorates the inventive songwriting. “Breathing Underwater” sounds much like its namesake thanks to some clever studio tricks. Computerized synths modulate in bright sonic palettes, evoking the rush of bubbles to a watery surface. Later, the same instrument swells in the background like the rise and fall of waves. It’s a sweet, somber Latin-esque ballad brought to stunning clarity. Each band member has room breathe, allowing the small touches like these the spotlight. “Swamp Thing” is similarly impressive thanks to some inventive sound engineering. The song is dominated by thick, meaty bass stomps that capture the menace of the song’s namesake quite well. It’s loud, crunchy and undeniably fun. Track after track, it’s clear that’s the band’s talent doesn’t end at the writing stage.
If any substantial criticism should be leveled at “Choose Your Weapon,” it’s that the band too often opts for undeveloped interludes to pad out the tracklisting. Sure, the album sports a lengthy 18 tracks, but six of these tracks don’t even hit the three-minute mark. Some barely pass one. Though, that’s more of a perfectionist’s critique than a grievous fault of the album. Despite some unnecessary filler, Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Choose Your Weapon” is fantastic. It’s unique. It’s innovative. It’s pure Hiatus Kaiyote, and in a year full of quality releases, the hardest earned compliment is often standing out. More than that, it stands beside the year’s very best. So kick back and enjoy the lounge jazz vibes. Enjoy the funk-laden grooves. Fall in love with the samba dance rhythms. You can choose your weapon, but the odds are good that you’ll have trouble picking just one.