If you’re currently suffering from a heart condition, or a nervous disposition, then your doctor would not recommend ‘Modern Plagues’. The second release by The Whistles & The Bells, the pseudonym for solo artist, Cadillac Sky mandolinist and all-around scatterbrain Bryan Simpson, ‘Modern Plagues’ is about as calm and collected as a rollercoaster in a lightning storm. It’s a manic, splattered canvas of musical ideas, mostly half-baked, downright chaotic, but always done with gusto. Whatever else you say, ‘Modern Plagues’ sure is an interesting beast.
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Perhaps over-eager to move away from his country-centric pedigree, Bryan Simpson has created an album akin to a hamster playing with a radio tuner. It jerks violently between genres, styles, and volumes without stopping for breath, sprinkling samples and garage band sound effects along the way without mercy. From the rousing country early Beck stylings of ‘Small Time Criminals’ to the bloated Jamiroquai-on-ketamine ‘Zombie Heartz’, it sure covers some ground. The problem is that, without any structure to keep the album together, it feels less like a creative masterpiece and more like fish writhing in a net.
One constant is the lyrics. They’re consistently brilliant in that Josh Tillman acerbic-postmodern sizzlers kind of way. ‘I could be a better girlfriend than the ones in your video games’ says Simpson on indie opener ‘Harry Potter’, or ‘The animals are gonna put us in the people zoo’. Sharp, snappy, and often darn funny, it’s a pity so many are sunk in that saturated soup of samples and vocal effects.
Though a lot of the genre changes feel more throw-at-the-wall than carefully crafted, ‘Modern Plagues’ does boast one solid stick. Amid the swamp, Simpson demonstrates a surprising talent for funk-tinged R&B. A far cry from his country background, but he pulls it off better than the rest of his experiments. ‘Year of the Freak Out’ and ‘Good Drugs’ are the album takeaways; soaring groove-built compositions lathered in organs, punch-drums and fuzzy bass work, echoing the likes of N.E.R.D or Anderson Paak. If ‘Modern Plagues’ was the scribble board where Simpson was seeing what he was capable of, this would be the angle to jump on for release three.
All things considered, the flaws with ‘Modern Plagues’ are clear. It’s not really an album at all. It’s a brilliantly creative jumble in dire need of a caretaker. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Often, you’ll find both in a single song, all linked together by the album’s anxious, over-caffeinated atmosphere. But it’s no wasted effort. Bryan Simpson has talent across the board, there’s no denying that. He’s a damn fine instrumentalist, his lyrics are sharp as a razor and his voice (when he’s not trying to sound like someone else) packs one hell of a punch. He just needs to learn to control all of that into something more manageable, and learn the old wisdom that ‘less is more’.