Texas native Roger Sellers has been experimenting with blending the electronic, ambient, Americana, and folk genres on a run of albums since his 17 song-long self-titled debut in 2010. Sellers’ sophomore album, Moments followed in 2011 and he delivered the true-to-its-title 8 Songs in 2012. His fourth album, Primitives, was also released under his own name back in September 2014. This past September, Sellers issued a statement at his official site where he explained that he wanted to separate his acoustic folk music from his minimalist (but actually not!) electronic material. Hence the name-change to Bayonne and the upcoming re-release of Primitives March 25th on Mom + Pop Music.
Not only is Primitives a re-release, it also sports previously unreleased material that was not on the original album and it will also be available on vinyl for the first time. Sellers has picked up quite a loyal following over the past few years and it’s still growing. He has been touring across the U.S. almost non-stop since his moniker-switch announcement. He’s hitting all the right music press notes, with lead single “Spectrolite” premiering on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 in October and second single “Appeals” debuting in January. CMJ, Rolling Stone, and NPR have all extolled the virtues of Sellers’ singles and energetic live shows.
Sellers has described himself as a ‘minimalist’ artist, but he goes to the max instead on Primitives, starting off by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink on opening number “Intro”. It begins innocuously and pleasantly, with pensive cathedral organ-like notes slowly flowing amid sustained synth lines. Brief plashes of water and birdsong mingle in the mix until two fast-strummed stringed instruments, one low in tone and one in a higher register, come in and break the ruminative spell. While those strings are hurriedly and continuously played, even more sounds enter and exit the song, from a snip of droll slo-mo male vocals, light piano notes, and delicate sprinkle of chimes to crisp hand claps/metal clacks, the sporadic thunder of drums, cymbals crash, and eventually fried laser blips. All of the sonics are kept elevated in the air, like so many spinning plates on sticks that the song gets aurally dizzifying. Sellers swoops in midway with keening, high pitched vocals, but his words are hard to hear among the intensifying, rhythmic percussion. At the outro of “Intro”, the dynamic pace and vocals disappear, leaving only the heavy press of expanding organ notes and the tinkle of music box notes. The complete effect is breathtaking, but also overwhelming – and foreshadows the rest of the album’s songs.
Throughout Primitives, Sellers struggles to strike a balance between slow and fast or calm and kinetic, and succeeds completely only on a couple of songs. “Lates” is the most placid track with its contemplative piano refrain, gentle brush of synths, and Sellers’ hazy, reflective vocals. He sings yearningly that, “The feeling is gone away…” amid the on-high chime of bell-tone notes, giving the song a hymn-like vibe. The bonus track “Hammond” is also comparatively spare, utilizing less sonic geegaws and focusing on Sellers’ vocals and lyrics. Bells toll in the distance as the piano notes circulate in a short, repetitive cycle. Extended, bright synth lines are strung along Sellers’ light vocals as he regretfully deplores that “I’ve forgotten where I need to be / Something’s stopping me.” A slowly swelling sway of ripe symphonic strings and a steady, yet still active beat round out the mellower atmosphere.
The rest of the songs on Primitives hold a certain melodic and rhythmic charm in many spots. Sellers gets his groove on with the vibrantly resounding and absorbingly primal drumming passages that enliven many songs and which surely translate well in the live setting. His vocal tone and delivery and his lyrics, when you can hear them, captivate. Certain sounds are pleasing, like the extended synth lines, piano and organ notes, and rare use of acoustic guitar and symphonic strings. Other sounds are acceptable, but become overwrought due to the speed, repetition, and layering of too many loops. Taken as a whole, the result is too frenetic, overstuffed, and repetitive.
Sellers runs each number into the next, with usually sonically discordant connector pieces joining the ends and beginnings of each tune, creating one big instrumental and conceptual machine made up of a plethora of cogs. His ambition and intent are admirable, but it also makes for an arduous go of it to listen to the album in its entirety. Listening to ‘pieces’ of Primitives is the better option, that way the repetitive looping, multitudinous layering, and anxiety-inducing rhythmic agitation don’t get too exhausting.
Sellers also tries to find a balance between organic and electronic instrumentation, but again, the songs skew towards the artificial instead of the natural due to the use of looping, samples, and processed electronics. The second single “Appeals” is a buoyantly appealing ride in and of itself with cascades of chiming notes and occasionally struck drums that morph into delightfully dancing piano notes. The piano drops are augmented by scurrying runs of higher tone notes that become tiresome over time. The super-sprightly, chopped-up classical feel is moderated by the soft breath of synths and Sellers’ echoed, wavering vocals as he bounces through the bleak verse “Nothing is real / if nothing appeals.” Clicking hand claps and a slowly thumping beat are added, along with a weird undercurrent of a crowd talking.
“Appeals” slides into the tuneful “Spectrolite” which radiates with a similar, too-fast, and repetitive pattern of xylophone-like patter, quickly strummed acoustic guitar, and a rapidly shuffling drum beat. Sellers’ lighter, sharper, but distanced vocals float over the bright ambience as he intones, “Looking back it’s… surreal.” Quite. Like a merry-go-round that won’t stop, the conglomeration of sounds zips by quickly and dazzlingly, but continually, and with slight variation. A wash of sweeter synth notes is a welcome respite, as is the gentle plinks of piano. The album’s strangely recurring motif of running water occurs near this song’s end, sounding like a draining fizzy liquid, along with bird twitter, a car horn honk, and the tread of rolling tires.
The irritatingly speedy xylophone notes make an appearance again on the moody “Marim”. The first half of the song intrigues with its deeper tone, heavily rhythmic drumbeat, Sellers’ softer, mid-range vocals, and the murmur of light piano notes. His words once again are submerged in the mix and can’t be heard clearly except for the surfacing phrase “ever-changing mind.” “Marim” would be compellingly meditative if it wasn’t for the near-continual intrusion of the restlessly and rapidly vibrating, wind chime-like xylophone notes. The ubiquitous sound of trickling water, possible pigeon coo, and a tape rewinding all materialize by the song’s conclusion.
The easy-going fluctuation of “Waves” contains a similar deep rhythm as “Marim”, but also uses piano notes to set the tempo. Sellers exclaims in a sing-song fashion that “…I know there’s something else…” while more water pours out and keeps flowing into the way-too-hyper “Steps”. A super-speedy, scrambling picked guitar refrain collides with snips of looped vocal repetition as Sellers mourns in a drawn out delivery that “I can’t seem to find her.” The need for speed and intensity takes over again, but in a good and smoother way on “Omar” with its fast-blipping, but engaging electronics, active drum beat frisson, and Sellers’ sharper vocals where he declares “I’m reaching out.”
The last bonus track, “Sincere”, finishes off Primitives on an odd note, with a short, found sound speech that can barely be sussed out (What’s this talk of “change” and “suicide” all about?). The reverberating electronics are again too pushy and there’s an annoying car alarm siren that pops up, but the slow hand claps, hovering “Ooh”ing vocals, dynamically clacking drums, and Sellers’ light, heartfelt tone where he sighs “It’s not something to fear.” endear… and yet he can’t quite help himself and fills the end of song with noise. From Sellers’ own mouth in a recent interview with VinylMag.org, he described his album in three words: “Repetitious, dense, and melodic.” Pretty much sums Primitives up.
By Jen Dan