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Jade Relics, 'Mandarine'

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Jade Relics, Mandarine - COURTESY
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(Self-released, digital, limited-edition cassette)

Jade Relics is a new name on the Vermont scene, but the trio has deep roots. Stated briefly: Rico James cofounded Vermont's most prolific hip-hop label, Equal Eyes Records, and has produced for a dizzying roster of artists, locally and abroad. Elder Orange is the production pseudonym of Matthew Scott, a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist sideman and audio engineer who is perhaps best known for his work on guitar and lead vocals for jazz-soul outfit the NEKtones.

Finally, IAME is an MC/producer who arrived in Vermont from the fertile underground of Portland, Ore., where he was a member of both the Oldominion and Sandpeople crews. From the hinterland of the Northeast Kingdom, he's stayed mighty busy, delivering both experimental beat tapes (last year's Fifth Grade Fit Model) and knockout art rap (2017's Leaving/Left). His collaborations with Rico James and Elder Orange began as one-off singles and quickly grew into a group. Jade Relics never shoot straight, but they never miss, either.

Which brings us to Mandarine, their debut. At just six songs, this project is packed with an album's worth of ideas and movement. When reviewing short projects, it's often hard to avoid wishing in print that artists had put in more material, but the EP gives listeners some serious nourishment and much to unpack.

Opener "Seeds" builds a haunting sample loop into an urgent dirge, a fitting canvas for IAME's starkly observed look in the mirror. "I trust the process more than I trust myself," he raps, "what's underneath the hood's a job for someone else." Announcing an intention to "plant seeds" in the hook, the team gets straight to it.

"Start Over" features Jade Relics firing on all cylinders, with Elder Orange laying down melodic leads, often swapping off with IAME. It's an ode to postmodern alienation with a showstopping storytelling verse in the middle. It's also a total contrast to "With You," a very grown-up love song laid over a warm bath of synths.

The title track takes full advantage of Elder Orange's instrumental chops, opening with a tricky bass riff that juggles slaps and harmonics. Once the guitars and layered drums slam into place, IAME absolutely goes off, delivering a sermon that's personal and political in equal measures.

"Island" transforms the claustrophobia of COVID-19 lockdowns into a glittering '80s pop anthem, then veers into a jazzy R&B workout just in time for IAME to deliver a wry snapshot of our strange times. Album closer "Leave Us Alone" is a hilarious inversion of rap braggadocio, complete with killer scratch work from West Coast heavyweight DJ FlipFlop.

Mandarine is an imaginative knockout from a confident, mature and ambitious crew. IAME's pen game is untouchable right now. The short project is also a sizzling hot business card for mix/master engineer Matthew Scott, who has recently made music a full-time job.

Jade Relics make weird music, no doubt, but it's also catchy and fun. They might just fuck around and make an improbable viral hit someday soon.

Mandarine is available at jaderelics.bandcamp.com.