Mild High Club's "Skiptracing"
By Mandi Kimes
Mild High Club’s follow up to last year’s Timeline is now out on Stones Throw Records. In crafting Skiptracing, Mild High Club has made an album that strikes a balance between the known and unknown aspects of art and creation. While Brettin sought to have complete control over the creation of the previous album, in opening up and allowing these creative variables in, he learned a valuable lesson that lies at the heart of Skiptracing itself: “When you wish upon the unknown, you might be surprised by the rewards.”
After growing up playing flute in the school band and majoring in jazz studies in Chicago, a visit to Los Angeles in 2012 allowed Mild High Club founder Alexander Brettin to connect with the Stones Throw crew. After passing the early demos of what would become Timeline onto Peanut Butter Wolf, Brettin made the move out west within the year.
“The difference between Timeline and Skiptracing is detail,” Brettin said. On Timeline, Brettin resorted to vague lyrics so as to highlight the music itself. But for Skiptracing there’s both a heightened thematic aspect as well as more complex musical arrangements encasing it. In Brettin’s estimation, the album’s story arc is that of a “private investigator attempting to trace the steps of the sound and the spirit of American music.” And in investigating the spirit of American music, Mild High Club re-imagine AM radio hits as blasting in from a parallel universe, the sound of early 70s LA in a smog of sativa. If Todd Rundgren was the primary touchstone for Timeline, Brettin and band now look to the wry, trenchant wit of Steely Dan, gazing deep into the dark underbelly of sun-bright LA and coming away with catchy songs underpinned by slippery jazz phrasings.
The album begins with title track “Skiptracing,” starting with a subtle drum machine that leads into a sultry smooth guitar line before accelerating into the drumbeat. Brettin’s voice sets the smooth flow for the song; with harmonies coincidentally joining on the lyric “Can you see into this harmony? // Can you let your conscious set you free?” The chorus introduces cowbell and fingersnaps to the groove, as Brettin sings about searching for the meaning behind the music. The dual guitars at the bridge cause an infectious head-bopping before the chorus comes in one last time to leave you in a daze. “Homage” begins with swirling keys before Brettin sings “Someone wrote this song and I could tell you where it’s from // The 4-7-3-6-2-5-1 to put my mind at ease,” which I could guess the numbers signify the place in chords in the key, according to music theory. The chorus is bright and catchy, with heightening guitars and a beautifully-written and funky bass line that doesn’t overpower the mix whatsoever. The theme of flipping a coin revisits this song, with the sound of a coin hitting the ground midway through. The bouncy melody in the keys and guitars mixed with the recording of a baseball game bring the song to a subtle close without fading into the abyss.
“Cary Me Back” is a slowed-down jam as smooth as molasses. With bell-toned synths and jazzy beat in the drums, it has the sound of a Christmas song mixed with a tropical feel. The introduction of string synths to the second chorus is reminiscent of The Beach Boys, with a dreamy atmospheric bridge. The woodwind tones at 3:34 mixed with the glockenspiel sound bring the song to a dreamy end, before a funky beat kicks into “Tesselation.” The song grooves along, until the chorus introduces sleigh bells and a George Harrison-esque guitar line. The chord progression in the chorus reminds me of the chorus from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (Brettin states it’s actually inspired by Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter”). The bridge brings in waah guitar with a jazz guitar melody highlighted above the chords. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record from start to finish with how jazzy, funky, and smooth, while still mixing in psych and hazy rock.
“Head Out” is the jazzy ballad of a lullaby stuck midway this album that puts you into a dream. It’s the setting of a jazz club in the middle of a lava lump – slow movements up and down the bottle with bright colors mixed with the smoke and mystery of the club. The soft bop-styled saxophone duet set against the Bossa nova-esque guitars combine two elements of jazz without being too distracting: they complement each other extremely well for two varying jazz styles. It immediately moves into a similarly dreamy “Kokopelli” where Brettin sings “Welcome to my twisted cabaret where music touches me.” With swirling distorted guitars and the lush keys underneath, it’s the perfect setting for Brettin’s twisted cabaret. He ends the song with sweet, subtle vibes that the heightening melody into the stratosphere, sending us off into “Whodunit.”
This track, probably the most experimental of the album, pieces together the story without using lyrics. While using samples and loops of varying instruments and a raucous drumbeat, it’s similarly the “Helter Skelter” of the album. It’s as if the detective had his “A-ha!” moment of breakthrough: he’s found what he’s looking for, and sets off to prove his theory correct by slipping into “Chasing.” Similar to “Head Out,” it’s the dreamy song on the album with delayed vocals and slide guitar that rocks you back and forth. At around the 2:30 mark, the song derails from its ____ to lead you into a new direction filled with layered and dissonant harmonies that segue perfectly into “Ceiling Zero,” a strictly vocal 30-second tune with layered woodwinds underneath. The vocals I imagine are the detective and the woodwinds symbolize footprints or a clue that the private eye has discovered. Just as an idea “clicks” for the investigator, the song tune clicks into “Chapel Perilous.”
The upbeat drums set the groove for the song that makes you raise your shoulders to every quarter note. Heavily-reverberated vocals and layered harmonies are silky with the starburst of keys scattered here and there; even Brettin sings “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true,” with harmonies drawing out the word “true” over and over while the instruments take turns with solos. The song ends with a blooming launch of harmonies. “Skiptracing (Reprise)” is a minimal track highlighting the chords from the first track, putting the album to rest.
This album has everything I want and more: groovy drumbeats, silky percussion with brushes, funky bass lines that ornament the song, light and airy key parts, whirling guitars, lush harmonies. It’s the perfect mix of modern-day psych and old school jazz, which are my two favorite genres. Mild High Club definitely stepped up their game from the low-key Timeline to a more upbeat and listener-friendly Skiptracing.