Maybe it was when Dirty Projectors released “Stillness Is The Move;” maybe it was when Solange Knowles released her cover of the same song. Sometime around then, the influence of R&B on a certain segment of underground music became undeniable. The work of Doe Paoro, currently in the middle of a month-long residency at Williamburg’s Cameo Gallery, serves as an interesting example of where this movement—bringing together one generation’s pop sensibility with another’s fondness for DIY and underground spaces—might be headed. Some of the artists sharing bills with her during this period come from the more esoteric or experimental side of things—Thrill Jockey avant-dub artist Jason Urick, for instance. Yet Paoro herself is capable of both tapping into eccentric musical traditions and making deeply accessible pop music. Some of her recent album, Slow to Love, heads into decidedly strange territory—running her vocals through layers of distortion, for instance, or creating claustrophobic spaces around her voice on the title track. Elsewhere, she mines a more traditional vein. “Can’t Leave You” is a properly torchy ballad, structured around a piano melody and occasionally featuring swelling backing vocals.
Paoro is far from the only artist right now to marry an underground sensibility with unabashedly pop influences. Watching How to Dress Well play a DIY space last winter was a study in contradictions: on the one hand, it was iconoclastic enough to fit there, but the mood was light-years away from watching a more experimental act there. And while Tom Krell’s music has the sort of density and blissed-out tendencies that appeal to many a fan of ambient/drone music, it’s also clearly coming from an R & B tradition.
This crossover between indie and R & B isn’t exactly a new thing; just listen to Dub Narcotic Sound System’s 1996 song “Ship to Shore” (with vocals from Lois Maffeo)—it’s not intended as pastiche, but rather an as example of a style that all of the musicians involve clearly love. And I suspect that the influence of Prince, whether musical or aesthetic (or both), has also played a part in this resurgence of R&B in DIY scenes. (The music of Autre Ne Veut, in particular, comes to mind here.)
On the flip side of this crossover moment are artists who seem to be paying tribute to the genre’s most sentimental side. The Minneapolis-based Gayngs are perhaps the most self-referential of the bunch, and yet the style (mostly) works; “The Last Prom On Earth,” for instance, sounds both like a condensed version of the style and an excellent example of it. At the same time, there’s the tendency of parts of this to veer into overt emulation of the most sentimental and least (musically) interesting aspects of mid-90s pop—Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” I’m looking at you. For now, at least, Paoro’s songs remain memorable for both their catchier aspects and the more offbeat aspects of their production. That she’s equally at home with large-scale ballads and Future Islands covers suggests a promising sense of balance at work in her own aesthetic sensibility.