Life on the road provides the inspiration for Nate Brenner’s restless second album
You have to love side projects. It’s impossible not to think about bands schlepping around the world in tour buses, each member plugged into their MacBook, writing their own music rather than talking to one another, just pushing sounds around a glowing screen in the early hours of a hazy morning. In recent years, the proliferation of such electronic side projects has provided validation that technology facilitates creativity in hugely unprecedented ways, while also confirming that life on the road with your bandmates must be pretty dull.
By day, Nate Brenner is the bassist in tUnE-yArDs, a unit who seem to have as much disregard for conventional capitalisation as they do musical norms. It’s therefore no surprise that Brenner’s second full-length as Naytronix has a wandering, wonky vibe to it. Conceived and written while touring the world with his main band, ‘Mister Divine’ captures that jaded mood of endless roads, identikit hotel rooms and sleep-wrecking time zone shifts; periods of quiet introspection, inchoate possibilities and troubled dreams.
Though written in near isolation, ‘Mister Divine’ was executed in a traditional studio environment, Brenner hacking through his musical sketchbook with producer Mark Allen-Piccolo to craft nine discrete songs from a slew of ideas and notions, adding percussion, horns and guitar embellishments to the tracks. The layered arrangements make for a set of rapid, almost hyperactive switches of style suggesting the wild flicker of Brenner’s creative spark in the genesis of these songs. This is the work of a musical magpie stealing shiny things from any available nest and hoarding them for future use. In Naytronix’s case, the prize jewel is the imperfect, unpolished quality of Brenner’s voice. It adds a human dimension to these songs – a trembling, melancholy tint that offsets any restlessness in the music.
The work of cult Nigerian musician William Onyeabor was a source of inspiration for Brenner, and this manifests itself in some of the funkier excursions such as ‘Dream’ or the Yeasayer-esque ‘Shadow’. On the title track, the loose quality clashes with a feeling of skittishness and a constantly shifting sound world of bleeps, soulfulness and downbeat jazz guitar licks that can’t be pinned down.
Elsewhere, you hear axe-shredding guitar work and summery licks blended with false beats that would make Autechre smile (‘Starting Over’) or glitchy synths and lucid Motown molasses bass with wistful vocals (‘Back In Time’; the dreamy ‘I Don’t Remember’). The maudlin centrepiece of the album is ‘The Wall’, which finds Brenner presenting the same clipped horn-filled textures as St Vincent’s 2012 collaboration with Onyeabor champion David Byrne.
That ‘Mister Divine’ creates meaningful coherence out of so many diverse inputs is both testament to the sheer boredom and endless frustration of the touring lifestyle, and a credit to Brenner’s sharp ear for structure and sonic interplay. With results like this we can only hope it’s not too long before he gets himself back on that tour bus.