Ugly Side of Love, the debut from Bristol duo Malachai, borrowed heavily from the birth of capital-P Psychedelia — back when it was almost indistinguishable from, rather than the polar opposite of, garage rock. Scott Hendy proceeded to sushi-slice these fuzzy pockets of sound into uplifting, if occasionally eerie, songs. The pièce de résistance was Gee Ealey’s vocal style, cartwheeling through the synapses of reggae history and lighting up melodic patterns that casual listeners had always taken for granted. In a word, Malachai nailed it: the combination was consistently engaging and thrilling, and only the Corona-cracking “Moonsurfin” could have been mistaken for the work of anyone else.
It’s never easy to follow up a fully-realized gem, but there was so much more to explore within Love’s aesthetic that ‘more of the same’ wouldn’t have been out of line, and with a name like Return to the Ugly Side, that’s exactly what fans have a right to expect. Instead (with the exception of the lounge-looped “Rainbows,” which could’ve been on Love), Hendy now seems to be making a bid for the sort of omnivorous, stylistically noncommittal psych-hop that’s been relatively popular — marking critically acclaimed hip-hop milestones — for more than a decade now. The shift is hinted by the instrumental opener “Monsters,” which wedges a fleeting death-rattle beat in the middle of a Danny Elfman-esque pseudoclassical overture, à la The Archandroid. Hendy is far from an untalented producer and gives the listener plenty to sniff around at: the squelchy footprints in “Let ’Em Fall,” the Silver Apples hamsterwheel of “(My) Ambulance,” the chilly, plodding expanse of “Distance.” Return’s closer, with reverbed vocals and a descending acoustic line, might as well have originated from the Akron/Family cultural cloud. Weird to call such variety a product of apathy, but there’s definitely something a little dead-eyed about these excursions that renders the whole album ‘transitional.’
Gee doesn’t even pretend to stretch himself here, and it’s a shame for one of the only vocalists dynamic enough to reappropriate David Patrick Kelly’s “warriors… come out to plaa-ee-ay.” The man, while not always ‘serious,’ had a fire inside him. Promotional photos depict Gee as the eccentric, mad-hatter-clad and yowling next to straight man Hendy, but on this album he sounds like a guest singer in the worst way: his voice, now trademarked, gets drugged and stuffed into Hendy’s bag of tricks. Even on the tracks in which he sounds more certain of himself (“The Don’t Just” leaps to mind, despite its self-consciously ridiculous lyrics), Gee doesn’t sing the songs like he has much ownership. The beats are too unwieldy for him to wield. Understandably, the melodies suffer.
But sonic complaints can’t take anyone very far, nor are they constructive; if this is the playing field Malachai has chosen, they’ve got plenty of places to go and, lord knows, plenty of competition from urban bigwigs right down to the scrawniest GarageBand basementeer. What frankly bugs me about Return to the Ugly Side is that, replete with low-stakes-if-fun gimmicks as it is, it threatens to render one of last year’s best releases itself a low-stakes-if-fun gimmick, rather than a strikingly unique palette — they practically reinvented the wheel, and it’s sitting in the corner gathering dust! I’d be fine with the name Malachai evoking a particular sound and feeling, which it still does, barely, by a thread. They’d do well to steer clear of the global, the overload, the collapse, when it leaves them so formless — it leaves anyone who still cares already anxious for their ‘return to form.’