Def Ears, What It Is | Album Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Def Ears, What It Is

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(Self-released, digital download)

If you've missed out on local psych-soul outfit Def Ears, you're in luck. The band's Burlington tenure recently came to a close when front man Jonathan Nelson succumbed to the siren song of Brooklyn, which has claimed so many promising local acts. But before he fled the Queen City, the quartet released a slick debut, What It Is, that at least offers fans a memento.

Nelson and co. aren't afraid to get cozy, stretch out and see where the groove takes them, even if it takes a while to get there. Each of the album's six cuts crests the six-minute mark, at least, and several slink beyond eight minutes. Though their jams are extended, they never feel extraneous. Rather, the band elicits a definitively chill vibe that invites the listener to lay back, tune in and tune out.

"Time Machine" opens the record on a synth sustain that tweaks the ears as it slides into pitch before breaking into a series of shimmering notes. The sonic trickery is a little jarring at first. But that sense of unease quickly dissipates, replaced by a warm calm that moves in softly, like the effects of an Ativan pill. Once your ears are properly readied, the slow and low groove kicks in, centered on Jon Kraus' just-behind-the-beat snare snaps and Zach Zimmerman's sinuous bass line. Guitarist Ben Chussid chimes in with a gently ringing riff that injects substance to Nelson's ethereal synth work.

The anesthetic chill is so complete that Nelson's vocals, when they arrive, almost come as a surprise. His clean, unflashy croon is set high in the mix, coaxing the listener out of a narcotic daze. The effect is gently and pleasantly rousing, and it builds to the song's neo-soul-tinged apex.

The record isn't formulaic, exactly, but this is the formula to which most of the material adheres: Set the groove, drop the beat, kick in the sexy vocals and get-yer-freak-on riffs, then take it to the hook. Rinse, lather, repeat. Fortunately, it's a largely effective algorithm.

The swaying "Getaway" is sexy party music tailor-made for sexy boat parties — ideally a swingin' yacht, if you've got one. If you don't, commiserate to the grimy funk of "Minimum Wage" and party anyway — maybe from North Beach while the yacht rolls by.

"9 Beats" is the most sonically ambitious and lyrically substantive cut on the record. At the intro, a skittering breakbeat clashes with an ominous synth riff. Then a jagged guitar slices in and the band settles into a laid-back but insistent groove. Nelson sings poetically about social and political struggles, his simmering intensity coming to a boil at the song's instrumental freak-out six minutes in.

Def Ears' hip fusion of soul, hip-hop and psych rock may remind some of another local band, Madaila. That makes sense, since Madaila's Eric Maier produced What It Is. But where Madaila work within concise pop constructs, Def Ears take a more expansive and experimental approach. That sometimes means the payoff is delayed, as the band wends its way through various shifts and changes. But when it comes, more often than not that payoff is worth the wait.

What It Is by Def Ears is available at def-ears.bandcamp.com.


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