Sam Mickens's Grotesquely Beautiful Art-Rock Opus
Slay & Slake
(Shatter Your Leaves)
(out of 5)
Sam Mickens is going to be a cult icon or die trying. The former Seattle singer/songwriter/guitarist formerly fronted the Dead Science, one of the city's most daring art-rock groups of the '00s. After they split in 2008, Mickens moved to New York City, where he seems hell-bent on achieving that icon status. With his debut solo album, Slay & Slake, the gangly entertainer continues his quest to will himself into a new, nervy kind of soul man—a white American take on Jimmy Scott and Bryan Ferry, perhaps—but Mickens's tremulous, androgynous croon may lose some people.
Slay & Slake peaks on the first track, "Lord Death Man," a heroic ballad that bursts with progressive-rock bravado and chamber-music punctiliousness. Sam's guitar solo is positively Frippian in its virtuosic, fastidious impressionism. The coda is a gorgeous efflorescence of melodic uplift, with Extra Life's Charlie Looker shadowing Mickens's glorious singing with his own riper pipes. Which is not to imply that the rest of the record falls off significantly. Mickens has written some of his most ambitious and grotesquely beautiful songs here. Throughout Slay & Slake, his avant-garde tendencies constantly tussle with his pop leanings (dude's a huge Prince fan), and the resultant friction sparks startlingly distinctive compositions that take a while to cohere in your mind. But when they do finally click (be patient!), Slay & Slake's tunes will haunt you... like a cult icon.