The greatest compliment I can pay to the cover of the new Cuticle LP is that it reminds me of my cousin’s bedspread circa the early 1990s. The Dalí-meets-Saved by the Bell melting shapes — play, pause, and stop — recall for me waking on a particularly bleary-headed summer Saturday morning, the only thing to reorient me a bedside copy of Spider Man #35 and the loud bedspread. The material displayed here on Mother Rhythm Earth Memory, Cuticle’s first long-player for Not Not Fun, is much like a reconstituted memory — familiar forms in an unresolvable, middling state of de/recomposition.
The first iteration of Cuticle, as present on last year’s 100% Silk release, Confectioner Beats, was composed of a trio of talented synth wayfarers, including Jeff Witscher (Rene Hell), Daren Ho (Driphouse), and Brendan O’Keefe (Nimby). Of the three, only O’Keefe remains. Cuticle is ostensibly his project, the past material dating from a time when they all collaborated on some level, a time before Witscher and Ho departed the wonderfully weird climes of Iowa City. While displaying some fingerprints of each, especially in strong textures and dense granularity, the initial Cuticle release was far more of a horizontal dance offering than what any of the three collaborators had previously been known for.
On Mother Rhythm Earth Memory, O’Keefe keeps a more-or-less similarly lateral modus operandi while interjecting some of his own into the proceedings through weirdo, close-talking vocal warbling reminiscent of Backstroke-era Matthew Dear or DJ Koze’s Koze Comes Around. The album opens with “Intro/Parallel,” where a mostly unintelligible vocodered lament melts into muffled, surging kicks and acid drop keys, before giving way to the standout single, “Liquid Crystal Drink (Pour My Dream),” a song that’s seemingly underwater from the start and revels in testing the limits of heavy filters, like someone trying to see just how long they can have a conversation at the bottom of a pool. The wonderful bubbly “Trickle” also enforces the strong aquarian theme here. It’s palatably acidic like tonic water.
There’s a certain determination to the songs here; you can picture the producer, headphones clamped on, willing these tracks into the realm of danceability. The uneasy tension in tracks like “Night of Romance” and the aforementioned “Liquid Crystal Drink” seem poised on O’Keefe’s determination to create dance music for an idealized place, a dance floor that possibly only exists in his imagination. Quite a bit of the 100% Silk stuff comes off this way, making music for an idealized space in hopes of birthing it into existence. This tendency to either “take it back” or take it to a place that may or may not exist has been derided as hipster house, with more formal dance purveyors sometimes bristling at the rough edges of this music. However, let’s not forget that for all the self-proclaimed true house heads out there softly bumping late-era Masters at Works, the music of Cuticle and the wider scope of 100% Silk releases are a lot closer to “Sharevari” and the Detroit/Chicago root of it all, both in sound and attitude, than the majority of what constitutes the sets of international DJs at the sleek international dance temples or mixes in middle-of-the-road mall clothing stores.
Cuticle’s shift to Not Not Fun from its more dance-oriented offshoot seems a negligible one, but importantly demonstrates the attention to detail and the immaculate feel that both of these labels have for the most minute aspects of their releases, with only a slight difference in runtimes or perceived affect making the difference. The pair of short songs at the end of the A-side are perhaps what takes this away from being pure 100% Silk, but Cuticle’s strengths and downfalls are both exemplified by the closing track, fittingly called “Without Form,” a squirmy, fluid exercise in evasiveness. Sure, it’s got a 4/4 beat, but I’m not sure I could dance to it unless I’m on the ocean floor. In this way, this is a project that has yet to really make up its mind and truly define itself, falling into that liminal space similar to some early acid house, perhaps lending itself more to headphones introspection than the irresistible urge to jack. Whether that ambiguity is ultimately a defining strength or weakness for Cuticle remains to be seen.