Blind dates in the music world, in which musicians try to find each other purely for professional reasons, tend to yield the same low return rates they do in regular dating: Common interests are noted and exchanged, forced conversation and awkward silences follow, clocks get watched, plausible excuses are offered and early bailouts ensue. But every so often a pairing clicks, and beautiful music happens. Six years ago, a mutual friend insisted that Derrick Hines — frontman at the time for Still Life Static and formerly of Charlotte mainstays Xperiment and Baleen — meet Albert Strawn, a budding local solo artist.
"This mutual friend kept bugging the crap out of me about this kid," Hines, 41, remembers. "'You've got to hear his lyrics, he's the best songwriter I've heard around here.' But I didn't believe him — you know how people are about music, they're all excited about stuff and then you hear it and it's like, 'Uh, I'm not sure what you're listening to, but I don't like it.'"
He decided to give Strawn a chance anyway and was floored by the solo gig he caught at Jeff's Bucket Shop. They talked that night in the parking lot and discovered a long list of mutual musical interests, including Radiohead, Grizzly Bear, Books and later Under Byen, whose Danish name — "Under the City" — would eventually inspire the Charlotte act's name.
The pair soon found that their shared interests also made for a simpatico songwriting relationship. Early on, they thrashed out a tune in 20 minutes ("Too Much Everyone") that would land on their eponymous debut when it came out this May.
It wouldn't be until May 2013 that the collaboration became official. Hines had moved to Atlanta to go to school but couldn't find a Sound Design program to his liking and wound up downcast on the workaday hamster wheel. He hadn't even touched an instrument in 18 months when a friend overseas asked him for some backup vocals. His spirits quickly lifted; if being frontman wasn't exactly what he'd wanted, making music still was.
Meanwhile, Strawn kept sending him MP3 files of songs he was working on in a not-so-subtle campaign to get Hines to return.
"Derrick is the only other person that I really know that I work well with, who's professional and excellent at what he does," the 30-year-old Strawn says. "So I basically spent three months sending him new stuff I was working on and telling him 'You have to come up.' and 'I'm ready to go.'"
Strawn finally returned to the stage after his performing hiatus. He hit some open mic nights in late 2012, road testing his recently acquired sampler and the songs he'd come up with that featured it. "I like the guitar, and I like playing piano, but I wanted more sound," he says. "I just felt that something was missing."
The new material was a hit with audiences and gave Strawn confidence to keep going down a more electronic path. Charlotte studio owner Charles Holloman went to one of his shows and liked what he heard enough to offer his production services when the band worked on the debut from September 2013 to January 2014.
The resulting disc flits between song types, united by Strawn's vocals sorties and clever turns-of-phrase that mask more serious intent. The trellis frames of "While You're Here" and "Crippled Dancer" recall Strawn's years as a solo performer armed only with voice and guitar; it's no shock that he lists Leonard Cohen and Conor Oberst as influences. Strawn's growing comfort writing on piano highlights "A Skipping Stone" and "Drunken Rose," notable for their percussive block chords and staccato runs.
But it's the songs featuring glitchy beats, synth modulations and looped figures that offer the most compelling moments. Those elements — bowed glock, Animoog Wavedance patches, etc. — highlight Strawn's already striking vocals. He's adept at floating over frameworks with Yorke-ian angst or Rufus Wainwright-like vibrato. First-time listeners throw singer-comparisons at Strawn — Jeff Buckley, Andrew Bird, Morrissey, Elliot Smith and Sigur Ros' Jónsi among them.
No one's more impressed than his bandmate. To Hines, it's the raw emotion Strawn channels that identifies him with so many quality singers. "The good ones that people say Albert sounds like, that's the one thing that they have in common — it doesn't matter what they're saying, you feel what they mean whether you understand them or not."
Buoyed by reaction to the debut, the pair is already working on their follow-up, and hopes to release an LP and two EPs by winter 2015. In what order they show up has yet to be determined, but they insist that they've just scratched the surface.
"I don't see myself ever getting bored with this project," Hines says. "There's so much that we haven't even tapped into."
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