By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
Released on the first day of 2021, Bilal Abbey’s new record offers some welcome vibes. From the cover art’s soft rose quartz filter to the stoner-y ASMR vocals at the top of the opening track (“2MnyDyz”) to the overarching themes of self knowledge and deep, real love, Mellowhead soothes and inspires.
The relaxed, mystic tone of the record won’t surprise anyone already familiar with Abbey’s work: previous releases include Paradise (2016) and Gremlins (2019) as well as the 2019’s Mysterious Shit, a collaboration between Tribe Eternal (Abbey, Clara Kent, Pharaoh Lum) and NVSV. Mellowhead was written, arranged, mixed and mastered by Abbey; Yorel Tifsim, as producer, brought a slightly gritty, chillwave, soul-sound to the record.
On a surface, the melodies pleasantly meander, and on early listens drifting into my ears and swirled softly through my skull. And then, like any record worth listening to on repeat, layers of rich imagery and meaning emerged.
Shimmery jazz piano snakes under the wide-reaching, high-minded diss-track “Aint Shit,” contrasting the sharper edge of Abbey’s typically low-key flow. “Compromise” spikes with some heat and then cools off with hypnotic melodic lines. “Flame Builder” brings to mind the romantic hip-hop balladry of, say, Outkast’s “Babylon,” with dreamy backup vocals that wouldn’t be out of place on a latter-day Leonard Cohen recording.
There’s a lot of sweetness here, and a lot of realness as Abbey, with a mix of toughness of and vulnerability, confronts what it means to love himself, and what self-love has to do with loving another person.
Press materials describe Mellowhead as “an experience portraying the life and inner thoughts of an artist on the path of self-discovery,” and it does feel like a living, experiential process — kept lively by the chemistry between Abbey, Tifsim and guest vocalist Clara Kent — rather than a static document or a diary entry.
Abbey compellingly toys with the rejection of suffering as a necessity or a virtue. “Humans temper ourselves by going through things/And concealing the residual feeling that’s/Keeping us from healing,” he raps on “Tempered Glass,” a track that, like that material, fractures into its own soft pieces. “It’s like the more we bleed the more we feel strong/That idea is wrong.”
Not the worst way to approach a new year.
Sam Stucky has been rolling out singles for the last several months, culminating with the release of the EP Joelle. The four-song release nearly fizzes over with bright, major chord energy, and Stucky’s refined, wholesome vocals and melodic approach brings to mind sunny ’70s AM radio rock. He’s consistently compared to James Taylor, with whom he shares a velvety-smooth earnestness (Stucky claims not to hear it, but for reference, check out “No One Else”). There’s also a dimension of ’90s power pop (think Teenage Fanclub without the fuzz) and mid-aughts pop (keep an ear out for sweeping Taylor Swift-esque hooks).
Stucky is clearly an ambitious artist specifically and person generally: “I don’t want to be easily confused with/All those other people who say things but don’t do them,” he sings on the indie-rock power-ballad “Nothing Special.” “I just want to do things …. I wanna be the only me.”
PMA permeates this EP, even as it explores self-doubt and frustration (“Am I just a liar, am I just a poison seed?” Stucky asks at the tail end of the record. “I made it this far only to realize I bleed mediocrity.” Clearly not, but his vulnerability adds sweetness to a confident effort.