Endless Blue: Smoke Through It

Endless Blue
Smoke Through It
Future Cabaret Records

Trip-hop was unfairly abandoned in the late '90s, perhaps when fans got sick of waiting for new albums from Massive Attack and Portishead. That's probably why the combination of slinky female vocals and tech-geek soul sounds a little dated now. But since the genre never had a chance to wear out its welcome, why not try to bring it back? Endless Blue moved to Milwaukee earlier this year, but the name should ring a bell with fans of the Twin Cities Electropunk compilations. Before relocating, the duo played around Minneapolis for years, including some time spent in a slightly different incarnation known as State4. Having pared down their lineup from four to three to two, the band still have all the necessities for their sound: man, woman, and machine. Nick Mitchell's synthetic arrangements yield the spotlight to the silky lines of vocalist Laura Hillman, who draws from the same well of 1940s jazz singers as did Portishead's Beth Gibbons. Their voices share that eerily placid and sultry croon that Hillman needs to pull off a guitar-infused rendition of "Fever." When her timing strays from the sangfroid everyone's used to, it's merely a reminder that no one's as smooth as Peggy Lee. It also detracts from the fact that there's nothing less sexy than finger snaps that came from a metal box.

If Endless Blue seem to lack the soul needed for really excellent trip-hop, it's because they're more closely tied to electro's gothic side than anything remotely hip-hop. Half of the songs on Smoke Through It make references to crying, with nearly as many mentions of shadows, the cold, and regret. Those interested in hearing "rain" rhymed with something other than "pain" will be disappointed. The music follows suit. On "The Feeling," the ghostly echo of a cathedral choir backs Hillman's despair as if the only light at the end of the tunnel is the bright one that comes with death. It's this threat of eternal darkness that makes "Rainy Eyes" such an unexpected treat. By simply slipping into a major key, the band turns another song about loneliness into an effortless melody that borders on optimistic.

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