Kids These Days, “Traphouse Rock” ★★★½
Even hyphens couldn’t bring together all the styles that Kids These Days offer under one tent. The Chicago-based collective plays funk-alt-rock-pop-jazzy-hip-hop-blues, and that doesn’t even start with the subgenres. The point is, they do it all well, and “Traphouse Rock” is definitely one of the finest Chicago albums of 2012.
This impressive full-length debut has been in the works for a while, but it’s well worth the wait. When I caught up with them before their scorching set at Lollapalooza 2011, the band’s seven feisty players (most of them freshly graduated from South Side schools, namely Whitney Young) were hoping to finish the album that fall. Then the raves came in, mine included, and their profile was raised to the point where they were able to work with some bigger names. These pedigrees likewise draw from the breadth of modern music, from tracking much of the album locally with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to mixing in Los Angeles with Mario C., who contributed to some of the more palatable slices of ’80s and ’90s rap-rock (Beastie Boys, Tone Loc, Beck).
“Traphouse Rock,” itself a compound euphemism used by the Kids for their hybrid sound, boasts a rainbow stylistic palette. The album opens with a dated trope, the sound of a radio dial spinning through disparate stations, indicating the array from which these kids sample within their sound. But when KTD samples, it does live — playing quotations instead of inserting primary source recordings. In “Ghetto,” guitarist Liam Cunningham weaves in the signature melody from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before the song diverts into haunted reverb echoes and a soft, supple horn-section breakdown. “Doo-Wah,” an affecting piano ballad, led by Macie Stewart (a winsome blend of Abra Moore and Ximena Sarinana), references the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” “Bud Billiken” — a storied local reference KTD turns into a clever marijuana pun — features the horns quoting Radiohead’s “Creep.” The album’s closer, “A Man’s Medley,” braids James Brown’s male-dominated perspective with “Summertime.”
The saving grace here is that all the musical hyperlinks are savvy and subtle, never a raison d’etre for the song itself, a dash of spice instead of a main ingredient. The songcraft of “Traphouse Rock” is inventive and original, even though the frequent left turns and ambitious, tangential structuring robs a few tracks of opportunities to set the pop hook. At the center of the spokes — Cunningham’s alt-rock, Stewart’s indie-pop, the rhythm section’s jazz-funk, the horn section’s soul — is Vic Mensa, a solid hub around which these wheels can turn without flinging every which way. A well-oiled, rapid-fire rapper, Mensa provides a sturdy base from which the band’s flights of fancy can operate their various sorties. In “Wasting Time,” he hints at KTD’s free-form creative process (“We woulda been writing / but we were too busy tossing words around”); he brings the track — an achievement by itself, balancing a smooth cool in the groove and the vocal with an uneasy edge in the horns and the production — back to the center with a calming, “Namaste.” This music is, in fact, very much like yoga — it stretches out, it’s essentially peaceful, and its effect increases with repetition.