Album Of The Week: Dream by Calvin Presents

 In Reviews

A cavalcade of soul excellence and musical enterprise, Dream, the debut EP from Calvin Presents, is simply impressive from top to bottom. Taking neo-soul to a new level, the songs here continually fiddle around with experimentation, hoping to reveal just how far musical boundaries can be pushed while still remaining accessible, relatable, and intimate. The end result of this endless tinkering is a collection of songs that beautifully marry soul, jazz, and hip-hop while borrowing substantially from other incongruent styles: trap, alt-rock, and, perhaps most prominently, avant-garde.

Calvin Presents, or Calvin Brown as many Richmonders know him, is a talented jazz pianist and peculiar singer-songwriter, one who seems strengthened by his background and knowledge, but empowered by his boundless imagination. That imagination fuels much of the experimentation on the record, a defining feature of this remarkable music. His demiurgic approach is palpable right from the get-go on the EP opener, “Dream,” a lofty and memorable trek through Calvin’s eclectic mind.

The song begins with an ascendant, but echoey swirl that’s punctuated by breathing noises, something you might find on a modern day metal release, before changing lanes with an electronic ringing that usually precedes a mixtape or underground single release. Eventually, a flighty melody zooms in along with some chanting vocals allowing to the song to truly open up. Here, you can get a sense of Calvin’s restless mind – on the first verse alone, he seems unwilling to stick to any one discernible pattern, with cadence shifts and wayward vocal notes that all splatter onto the song like a controlled Jackson Pollack exercise. It’s instantly mesmerizing, and really only a taste of what’s to come.

Dream experiments in just the right way here, beautifully threading the needle between avant-garde and pop music, in a way that flashbacks to Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, while also evoking some fleeting memories of Miles Davis and Captain Beefheart. Like the best of records that buck the status quo, any semblance of compositional narrative is lost. Through the music, you can get the feeling that Calvin is a meticulous songwriter, expertly placing all the wild migration and rhythmic polarizations and then painstakingly recording it until it’s just right (a la Brian Wilson). But there’s also a free spirit to the music, one that makes you think Calvin and his bandmates just threw the sheets in the air for some takes so they could just explore the song. Honestly, the end result is probably some combination of the two approaches, but that it leaves you wondering and guessing, while still humming and tapping, is what makes this music so indomitable.

Dream isn’t just there for those craving musical adventure though. At its core, these are remarkable soul songs that would be just as enjoyable in this sprawling metropolis as they would in the living room of a friend’s house. Calvin crafts songs with palatial melodies that are carried along by luminous vocals and genteel instrumentation, courtesy of his supremely talented backing band. Outside of his bandmates, Calvin is joined on this record by some of the premier artists of the Richmond scene. Soul emissaries Kenneka Cook and Sam Reed serve up some sublime backing vocals — with Cook stepping to the forefront on the relaxed track, “Haunted” — while hip-hop artist Chance Fischer helps electrify the song “Fall” in a defining moment for this genre-bending record.

Behind the scenes, DJ Harrison, of Butcher Brown and a million other projects, assisted Calvin with the production, helping to carefully guide the young musician along so that he could fully realize this ambitious reverie. You get the feeling of daydream throughout the record too, as songs shift and modulate, or even bleed into one another like “Dream” into “Big Words,” something that seems to capture the oscillating musical flow playing out between Calvin’s own ears. This all makes Dream feel as authentic as possible, despite its enormous amount of sonic exploring.

In a record this bold and industrious, there’s bound to be things you’re going to miss. In the background as I write this, Dream is playing for what feels like the hundredth time, and even now, I’m still catching an odd trumpet note or weird synthesizer filter that makes me wonder what the intent was. But before I can open up that that rabbit hole, a gorgeous melody or esoteric lyric snaps me right back into focus, cementing the fact that it’s not about all the little components at work here. It’s about the adventure they produce by joining together in this vibrant collection of progressive and exhilarating soul music.

Dream by Calvin Presents is out today, available on Spotify, iTunes, and other platforms. Also today is a special album release show at Hardywood, headlined by Calvin Presents, and also featuring Colin Phils and Maitri. For more information on the show, click here.

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