Arbutus Records (2013)
Voice and space function as the two most important instruments on Untogether, a side project of Braids’ Raphaelle Standell-Preston and collaborator Alexander Cowan, their debut album as Blue Hawaii. That’s not to say that traditional composition — at least in terms of electronic music — doesn’t conquer all on Untogether, but it does put the focus squarely on what is left out versus what is included. But does it accomplish enough with so little? Not exactly.
Standell-Preston is obviously the star of Untogether, as her unrelenting, bellowing vocals are not only lethal in a very fundamental way, but the tricks and twists which Cowan adds to her voice make the record come alive in a powerful way. “Try To Be,” one of the album’s standouts, is built upon this very principle. Not only is the acoustic guitar constructed as a round; the vocals, down to specific breathes, are sampled and repeated in a beautiful array of instrumentation, destruction, and ultimately resurrection. But one gorgeous song does not an album make, and for as many beautiful moments as Blue Hawaii are able to create, there are equally disappointing ones as well.
After “In Two II,” the album’s fourth track, Untogether begins to lag and sputter out in varying ways. The beauty of Standell-Preston’s voice begins to show a bit of tarnish when repeated so many times over, and always in such similar fashion. Without committing to being a pop record, or another trendy R&B ripoff, Blue Hawaii start to sound like a homogenized version of Jamie XX doing production for Molly Nilsson. In theory it sounds great, but in actuality, there are so few chances taken on Untogether that it carries on at a grating pace. It sounds like a record boxed in by high expectations and a lack of desire on the side of Blue Hawaii to push their own artistic frontiers.
BLUE HAWAII – UNTOGETHER ALBUM REVIEW CONTINUES BELOW
However, there are still tracks that show a great deal of promise. On “Flammarion,” a track that sounds like it was stripped from a dub album, some of the group’s most avant ideas finally come through. There’s a trippy, wobbling snare beat that provides the perfect backing for Cowan’s twisted vision. The flickering of the vocals once again provide the spark here, transforming “Flammarion” from played out concept into a manic, energetic track. The whole of Untogether could learn a lot from “Flammarion,” but sadly the rest of the record pales in comparison.
In a vacuum, Untogether is a terrific record, but in reality, it doesn’t do enough to separate itself from its contemporaries or genre expectations. Blue Hawaii never really lean into what Untogether should be, and because of that, it sort of falls apart. The boundaries sound like they were constructed so precisely that neither Standell-Preston or Cowan want to step outside of them, resulting in a record that lacks an identity even with its consistency. It’s an impressive debut, still, but it nowhere near showcases what these two should be capable of.