When Hundred Waters began five years ago, the Florida band was quiet by design, operating on a small scale with hushed whispers as they crafted lovely, understated ballads. Taking elements of the choral acrobatics of Imogen Heap and the psychedelic electronica of bands like Braids, they were saddled with a tag of “folktronica”, which they quickly shed by their breakthrough second album, 2014’s The Moon Rang Like a Bell. After touring with and befriending Skrillex, they signed to his label, OSWLA, and a 2016 remix he did of “Show Me Love”, which featured Chance the Rapper, blew up into a bona fide hit, with a music video that has nearly 20 million views on Youtube. While they don’t dramatically reboot their sound on their third album, Communicating, the record finds the band expanding their template, adding in elements of sleek jazz, downtempo, and bombastic shoegaze.
While the band itself have stayed quiet in the two years since finishing the last record’s tour, there have been many changes in their world. Multi-instrumentalist Paul Giese left the band, which is now a trio. FORM Acrosanti, the music festival they host in the middle of the Arizona desert where prospective audience members have to fill out an application to attend, evolved from a small endeavor to a unique mainstay during a festival season that in 2017 drew major artists like Solange and Father John Misty. Throughout this all, the band — Nicole Miglis, Trayer Tryon, and Zach Tetreault — have spent years writing the songs that make up Communicating, coming up with so many that a five-song EP, Currency, was released earlier this year to build up to the new album.
While putting out an EP just months before a new full-length can seem odd, listening to Communicating, its simmering reflection flows in a cohesive manner, making it apparent why the other, more brightly colored songs didn’t quite fit, even if they were stronger than some that made the cut here. Songs often bleed into each other, creating a lovely whirlwind of emotion that manages to blend together the new elements they explore. The straightforward, smoky piano ballad “Parade” gives way to the ambitious expanse of “At Home in My Head” where Miglis gets the chance to put her tremendous voice on display over an upbeat jazzy piano line and skittering percussion. While traces of Björk’s influences have always been felt in the band’s blend of pop and electronica, moments of Communicating recall the jazz-filled experimentation of Post, even if there’s no “It’s Oh So Quiet” here.
A band that’s been marked by quiet restraint throughout their career, Communicating finds Hundred Waters stretching their legs, whether it’s the kaleidoscopic groove of “Wave to Anchor” or the glowing pop of “Particle”. Nothing is as pronounced as the dramatic catharsis of single “Blanket Me”, the penultimate powerhouse before the muted dénouement of “Better”. Over a passionate refrain that on a skeletal level could fit on an early Regina Spektor album, the electronics swell in the background to soaring heights. As Miglis repeats the song’s title for what feels like eternity, they turn from a simple request to an all-encompassing prayer, full of desperation and longing. Synthpop pushed to widescreen proportions, the song stands as their biggest yet, reaching the kind of bombast that once defined M83.
The most interesting move, however, comes on the title track, a dizzying display of repetition meant to bewilder. The song transcends the trick it pulls, where Miglis repeats the phrase “Are we communicating?” over and over throughout. Singing those seven syllables over and over, she puts the stress over the sixth so that each time she repeats it, the phrase sounds different. Then she layers the phrase “It’s so complicated” over that to where the stress always lands on the “so.” As the music swirls underneath, rising with each refrain, this intentional gap is formed where the listener can never quite find their footing. Beautifully rendered, what could be a gimmick relays the album’s basic message about how something so simple can be shifted, misinterpreted, and twisted. No matter the intention, the gulf between two people in a conversation can constrict or expand in an instant, and Miglis captures the tension and confusion that can bring.
This discomfort and yearning pervades the album, from the music video for “Fingers”, which finds Miglis lying and stretching on a wooden floor as dozens of bugs crawl and consume her, to yearning closer “Better”, where she repeats, “Did I treat you right?” hoping for the answer she wants to hear. This desperation makes for some of the most intriguing experiments of their career thus far. Not every one is successful, though, as the middling “Prison Guard” and “Firelight” derail the momentum when they appear, and the album sags at points in its midsection as a result. With the energetic, pop-focused songs opening the album and the catharsis towards its end, the slow burn in between can feel like it drags on forever. They’ve made modifications to their approach rather than a drastic reinvention, and though “Blanket Me” demands to be heard in an arena, Communicating is far from an attempt to water down their music for a larger audience. An intriguing record that pushes boundaries, Communicating proves why Hundred Waters are always worth paying attention to.
Essential Tracks: “Wave to Anchor”, “Communicating”, and “Blanket Me”