This article originally appeared in TechNews on October 13, 2015
Nate Brenner’s association with tUnE-yArDs at this point in his musical career has been, to use a clichéd phrase, both a blessing and a curse. Serving as the only permanent member of that group aside from central figure Merrill Garbus, Brenner has already gained experience performing and promoting across the country as part of an in-demand act, and his first album under the solo moniker Naytronix, 2012’s Dirty Glow, had a PR advantage right out the gate due to the tUnE-yArDs connection. On the other hand, perhaps the tUnE-yArDs link put Naytronix at a critical disadvantage, with writers from publications like Uncut and PopMatters evaluating that initial double 10” in the context of Garbus’s work and finding it somewhat lacking. At the time, Brenner was still developing his solo style and reigning in his own voice, which was at times unstable on Dirty Glow. Today, though, after moving from small L.A. label Plug Research over to international indie institution City Slang, Brenner seems to finally have hit his stride with his latest LP, Mister Divine, which is out October 16th. Whereas Dirty Glow was a fun but somewhat scattered trip through a variety of genres with little to connect each track, Mister Divine starts to give a sense of the “Naytronix sound” and functions much better as a unit than Brenner’s previous work.
Mister Divine begins with its title track, which was released as a single with accompanying music video back in August. That video features an orange-hued Sixties beach scene witnessed through a filter of digital video corruptions, a fitting representation of the track itself, which juxtaposes a quiet surf-era lounge melody with passages of percussive, glitched out electronic rhythms. Unlike the songs of groups like Django Django or Coves¸ the goal here doesn’t seem to be to modernize surf pop. Instead, the track deconstructs and distorts the genre’s cues in a way that comes across as both fundamentally experimental and effortlessly familiar at the same time. Most of the album’s nine tracks follow a similar formula, with Brenner’s voice serving as a relatively passive component as various electro-psych elements rise in and out of the mix. That’s not to say that vocals never a point of attention; in tracks like “Dream”, Brenner layers different sung tracks and uses his voice as a rhythmic element in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of tUnE-yArDs, if only because that association is already present in the mind when listening to the album. His voice itself is often filtered in certain passages, and generally doesn’t reach for quite the same volume level or high tenor notes as it did in Dirty Glow tracks like “Nightmare” and “Robotic”. This works out to the new album’s advantage, since Brenner’s pipes are at their smoothest and most inviting when kept relatively subdued.
While the development of the eclectic, electric soundscapes on Mister Divine set it firmly apart from Dirty Glow, a few things have remained the same, in a good way. Infusions of Seventies funk are present throughout the LP, with many tracks built on danceable underpinnings and punctuated with horns both live and sampled. An experienced multi-instrumentalist himself, Brenner has expertise working complex arrangements into his songs without ever overwhelming the overall atmosphere of each track or losing any one instrument in the background. However, there are times when the number of layers seem to be the focal point of each piece, rather than the bones of the track itself (i.e. the slightly too passive “Future”). Whether that’s positive or negative is up to the listener, but some of the whimsical lyrical content on previous Naytonix work seems to have gone by the wayside.
Though there are moments on Mister Divine when Naytronix seems to be drawing from tUnE-yArDs for influence, nobody will mistake any of the compositions contained here for the product of Merrill Garbus’s creative process. While Garbus thrives on frenetic live overdubs and her own fast-paced vocal prowess, Nate Brenner takes a more measured approach to songwriting, reminiscent of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker or Junip’s José Gonzalez. New songs like Mister Divine closer “Shadow” prove that Brenner has evolved impressively as an artist since 2012, drawing the listener in like nothing he’s released before. While tUnE-yArDs is music for moments of empowered activity or even inspired anger, the songs on Mister Divine are more quiet and introspective, never demanding attention but rewarding those who listen closely. Though nearly every review of this album will draw endless comparisons to tUnE-yArDs (this one being no exception), in the end it’s not a truly apt narrative to force. Naytronix doesn’t sound like the spawn of Brenner’s work with Garbus; it sounds like something else entirely. Nate Brenner has found a sonic groove that exhibits his strengths in a unique and innovating manner, and stands out positively with or without the connection to his first group. 8.3/10