Album Of The Week: Better by bien
Who is “the cat burglar?”
Throughout all my listens of Better, the new fascinating EP from musician/producer bien, I find myself coming back to this question. The third track off this EP, “C’est la vie,” opens up with this three word phrase before evaporating into a jazzy line that serves as a bridge into the song’s rhythmic requiescence. About half-way through the instrumental, we get three more words — the titular phrase — spoken (or a sampled) from a different source, and then followed by the same delineation that opened the song up. It can be equally puzzling, but at least the phrase B*Witched made indelible to Generation Y fits the mood of the song, with a carefree spirit that’s decorated with little melodic flourishes that are serenely idyllic. What the hell does “the cat burglar” have to do with anything? Is this the soundtrack to the retired life of a would-be felon who was never caught by the law? Did bien hear this phrase on Adult Swim at 3 AM and decide to sample it? Is this a fragmented section of a larger composition?
If it sounds like I’m rambling to try make heads or tails out of this song, then good. I am. Maybe poorly so, but still — I am. In fact, I find that rambling is the best way to describe this knotty record, one that’s cagey and incisive, expansive and fragmented, abstract and engaging, weird and familiar… rambling again, see? Six songs make up this EP and despite some similarities here and there, they all seem to exist outside of each other, connected only by a loose sense of musical adventure and experimentation, one that can lead to some surprisingly pleasing melodic moments… or some agonizingly questionable lyrics. (And we’re right back to the cat burglar…)
The EP begins with the title-track, “Better,” a remarkably striking fragment of a song that opens up with chiptune-lite vocals and muted, staccato guitar notes that give the song an impish feel. Before you know it, a roaring guitar part takes over the song as the rhythm section kicks into high gear. After the guitar says its piece, the two parts join together, really hammering home the puckish nature of the song before the song quickly fades to a close. The second track, “What’s Life Anymore?,” serves as a pseudo-counterbalance to that upbeat rocker, with a more drawn-out approach, highlighted by a plodding rhythm line and errant samples and instrumental parts that seem subversive rather than supplementary. The two songs aren’t exactly polar opposites of each other, but do show the surrealism that seems to fuel the EP. Don’t make rhyme or reason of it — just enjoy it for what it is.
This can’t be explained more than listening to “I See You (You Look So Cool),” an anamorphic tune that somehow emerges as a highlight of the record. Buried in the muggy mix is a classic yet subtle melody, reminiscent of ’50s doo-wop and modernized with a programmed percussive foundation that catapults it from the idyllic corner stop to the bustling metropolis of today. It’s followed by “You Sleep So Peacefully,” a conversant piece that seems to carry on the delicate feeling of its precursor with a different approach, thus revealing that this isn’t experimenting for the hell of it. There’s something bien is looking for within this sonic wondering, and even if he doesn’t quite find it, it does reveal some interesting thoughts and moments.
Not all the songs are abstract or peculiar though. “Stuck In My Head” is a straight-forward song with a warm, inviting soundscape and a very appealing vocal melody that cruises along at a brisk pace before fading into the ether of the scenic production. As a stand-alone single, it would surely be enough to warrant some recommendations to friends and peers, but in the context of this record, it serves as a palate cleanser, washing away the reticular machinations of the previous five tracks and proving that Better isn’t a lark by a talented musician – even if he did open up a song with some nonsense phrase.
If this music is so good though, why do I keep coming back to that initial question — who is the cat burglar? It’s not because I want an answer. No, it’s because the questions of the record are what make it interesting as a complete unit. Anybody with a modicum of musical talent could create a record full of brief melodies and interesting soundscapes – but bien does it in such a way that it becomes an experience rather than an exercise, one that will leave you guessing like a great David Lynch film yet still fulfilled like a timeless Nora Ephron flick, and one that will surely keep you going even if you find the answers you were looking for.