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Jockstrap - Wicked City Music Album Reviews

Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye’s head-spinning vocal processing and unusual fusion of influences form a well of deep feeling, even when the meaning is obscured.

Afirst encounter with the UK duo Jockstrap can seem like a dispatch from a renegade shuffle play. Here’s singer-songwriter Georgia Ellery lilting sweetly over Casiotone bossa nova; here’s producer Taylor Skye mimicking a scratched-up copy of Now That’s What I Call EDM; here are the two of them laying down vintage orchestral pop courtesy of their classmates at Guildhall, a London conservatory. There’s more than a whiff of art-school hijinks to the project—particularly when you factor in that name, a predictable talking point in the duo’s interviews. (“I like that kind of gross shock factor,” says Ellery, who often sings in a cherubic coo.) But Jockstrap don’t come off like they’re trying to prove that they’re clever. Beneath the head-spinning vocal processing and surrealist wordplay, Ellery’s songwriting is a well of deep feeling, even when the precise meaning is walled off by layers of abstraction. This is particularly true on Wicked City, their second EP, on which her voice and lyrics soar confidently forward, no matter how jagged the path that Skye blazes.
In their short time together, Jockstrap have fashioned a singular sound from an unusual fusion of influences. The two met in composition class and began trading demos, finding inspiration in the overlap between Ellery’s imagistic character studies, Skye’s dubstep roots, and their shared classical training: not so much a Venn diagram as a wadded-up Moebius strip. On their debut EP, 2018’s Love Is the Key to the City, they toyed with easy-listening strings and space-age bachelor-pad vibes, setting Ellery’s carefully rendered tales of sexual awakening to wheezy electronic lounge jazz reminiscent of James Blake’s first EPs. With “Robert,” Wicked City’s opening song, they announce a marked shift. The strings and the dulcet harmonies are gone; in their place, a lumbering hip-hop beat, part Skrillex and part SOPHIE, that’s full of stop-start changes and sudden silences. Ellery’s cryptic spoken-word bits are digitally stretched and garbled, and the Arizona rapper Stepa J. Groggs, of Injury Reserve, drops 32 bars of pure non sequitur. Even Ellery’s verses are more about sound than sense: What begins as an address to an artist acquaintance (“You’re provoking me Robert/I want to be your playmate/I want my own portrait”) devolves into pitch-shifted gibberish with choice bits (“I want to/Be the bitch, be the masochist”) jutting like rusty iron bars from a scrap heap.
“Robert” sounds virtually nothing like Jockstrap’s debut EP, but with the next song, “Acid,” they’re back to their nostalgic silver-screen fantasies—strings fluttering, Ellery’s voice softer than a mink stole. The song shifts into a melancholy waltz; the lyrics, addressed to Ellery’s brother, are as ominous as they are enigmatic, leading from images of smashed vases, acid, and blood to a couplet of chilling clarity: “What if you kill me off/Or worse, yourself?” These juxtapositions are an essential part of Jockstrap’s aesthetic, and the duo spends the rest of the EP zigging and zagging, playing up every jarring contrast.

The record’s loveliest cut, “Yellow in Green,” distills the carnal sweetness of young love into lyrical piano glissandi redolent of Debussy, all salty skin and lavender breeze. The two-part “The City” begins with just voice and piano and sheds its skin to become a gnarly, distorted hip-hop beat; the first half is a stirringly vivid love letter to the city, a rush of sensations written with all the innocence of Ellery’s coastal upbringing, while the second half is an incomprehensible tale about a bear, a beaver, and a “hideous monster,” spun out like lysergic taffy. It’s beautiful, and also bewildering. The closing “City Hell” goes for a similar kind of discombulation, but to lesser effect, building from a winsome ballad for ersatz harp into a pyrotechnic display of trap beats and guitar solo that’s about as subtle as DJ Mustard remixing Queen.

There are precedents for this in the plasti-pop tomfoolery of PC Music and the stone-faced humor of Dean Blunt; in Jockstrap’s more wistful moments, you can also hear echoes of Julia Holter’s time-traveling chamber pop, a throwback to a world before color TV. But unlike the throw-everything-at-the-wall approach of 100 gecs, a group similarly interested in clashing textures and referential supercollisions, Jockstrap have a more sparing and inviting musical sensibility. It doesn’t always work; the severity of their switchbacks can make for an exhausting listen, and they don’t always know when to rein in the excess. There’s actually a false ending in “City Hell”: a trick fade-out, a moment of silence, and then a reprise of those pinwheeling guitars and buzzing synths, as though the first four minutes of major-key bombast hadn’t been enough. Jockstrap are young—Ellery and Skye are in their fourth year of music school—and they are still finding their way. But when they nail it, as on “The City,” their first-thought-best-thought creative bursts sound not just thrilling but genuinely new. For a group so steeped in retro modes, that’s no small thing.


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