Sam Ray has been creatively restless and irrepressibly prolific for years. The Maryland producer has multiple aliases for delivering lo-fi of differing flavors. He’s in indie-pop acts like Julia Brown and Starry Cat, and leans punk with the slightly more amped group Teen Suicide. More often he produces gauzy ambient and lightly glitchy electronic music, both in the collaborative group Heroin Party and what seems to be his primary creative vehicle, Ricky Eat Acid. Ray plays two headlining shows in New York City in the next couple of weeks, one at Brooklyn’s Shea Stadium and one at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge, a sign that the project might be entering a whole new phase.
It seems a bit strange that Ray’s ambient compositions should so often be praised by Bandcamp or Twitter admirers with words like “honest” or “sincere.” Pretty, subtle background music would seem a particularly inefficient method for cynical cash-in. Listen to a lot of it, though, and that level of fan connection begins to make sense. The 4-track tape-hiss sensibility of his indie-pop bands carries over to his quieter side. Organic elements—piano notes, acoustic strumming, room tone—often pop up in tandem with the electronic or programmed bits. Even the vocal samples he uses are twisted just so. It’s like a headphones version of spotting the thumbprints on clay figurines in stop-motion animation. But maybe it’s just that people want to believe in something beautiful? Much of the Ricky Eat Acid material is real morning-after snowfall-on-an-open-field type shit.
His latest single, “Context,” rushes at a much faster pace with a much smoother stride. In interviews he’s conceded that live performance demands less esoteric stuff. But digging into his teeming backlog of posted songs, singles, and EPs reveals a secret pop extrovert behind the introspective bedroom production. Haunt U Forever, which he posted in 2012 but recorded earlier, played with big booming hip-hop beats. The Sun Over Hills EP from this past summer follows the thought, dabbling in the frenetic rhythms of Chicago’s footwork scene. He put out the body-swaying single, “p u l l (may15)”, around the same time. It was the first song of this sort to use Ray’s own voice as a central melodic element, screwed-up and codeine-slowed as it may have been. That one’s as deliberate and swoony as his most vaporous tracks, but it’s another sign of a mask lifting, if only just a little.
The release that best represents the full range of Ricky Eat Acid’s strengths is maybe last winter’s Three Love Songs, the first ever vinyl release from the Orchid Tapes label in Brooklyn. Though it followed years of internet music sharing, this was something like a proper debut. He splits the record evenly between a still and static opening side and a more unpredictable and kinetic flipside that lets in bits of club music, trip-hop, and modern R & B. The second-half track, “In my dreams we’re almost touching” uses a repeating loop from some lady covering a Drake song like a house DJ might use a diva’s vocal, to accentuate the spiritual lift of the dance-floor by adding a little overt soul. Divinity is also grasped at by the Yo La Tengo-referencing “I can hear the heart breaking as one,” which aspires to Julianna Barwick’s avant-church-choir feels, if not her virtuoso vocal performance.
Throughout, Ray uses snippets of repurposed spoken word to add humanity. Brian Eno recognized the inherent musicality in the cadence of a Christian preacher. He and David Byrne used it to make the funk workouts of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts more affecting. By placing a bit of the ol’ fire and brimstone over ringing ambient tones on another sprawling standout called “In rural virginia; watching glowing lights crawl from the dark corners of the room,” Ray completes a rare “Double-Eno.” The record begins on a weirdly stilted bit of a love letter read aloud. Had someone snuck it onto a mixtape headed towards a crush? Is it being vetted for a confidante before it reaches that mark, the courage to send it still being gathered? Or scrutinized long after the fact? It’s only natural to grasp for context beyond what’s given.
It can change the effect of found-sounds immensely to know the hiding place from which they’re uncovered. The self-titled debut cassette from Kill Alters plays with the sound of old recordings in a way that’s superficially similar to techniques Ray uses on Three Love Songs. Bonnie Baxter might warp her fragments a bit more drastically or lay them on top of each other until they become indistinguishable, but she too uses voices from the past to give incidental music a bit of authentic ache. But Baxter’s source material is culled from boxes and boxes of discovered recordings made by her mother, an avid home-taper who’s long struggled with severe Tourette’s syndrome and OCD. Learn that, and mystery gives way to more uneasy feelings.
A main takeaway from listening is the seemingly endless capacity for the human voice to both convey and trigger a spectrum of emotion. At times the recordings growl with a frightening, almost demonic tone that gets creepier when Bonnie’s young kid voice soon follows. “My father, he kicked the hell out of me when I was a kid,” her mom sobs at one point, thick drone clearing to make it heard. “He took my mother’s frying pan and hit me over the fucking head.” There’s no way to independently assess that, but we’ve been given enough information to fear it true. Then there’s the closing track, a recording of a call-in to a radio show that’s so warm and familiar it retroactively jacks up the empathy level for everything that preceded it. There’s a much deeper Soundcloud rabbit hole to descend into, where dozens of the original recordings have been posted.
Baxter’s singing voice provides some of the cassette’s more musical moments. It’s a high, gusty roar that’s reminiscent of EMA or Marnie Stern at their most feral. Her presence grounds the tape-opening “A09,” which might otherwise be formless. Baxter, like Sam Ray, is a cross-genre dabbler; up to this point she’s produced electronic goth-pop under the name Shadwbx. Kill Alters belongs to traditions of noise music or even performance art, not at all attempting the beauty Ricky Eat Acid songs routinely achieve. (The cassette provides a nice confirmation that her local label, GODMODE, isn’t suddenly going soft on us after launching a pop-star in Shamir.) Crackling bursts of distortion and distressed mechanical drums always lurk, threatening to erupt from the silent stretches. The songs are raw as hell in both sound and emotion. They sound unkempt and unfinished. It’s kind of insidious, though, lingering in mind beyond the reach of buttons marked “play” or “rewind.”