PAIRING UP Trails focus on the producer, not just the MC.
There's no denying it's pretty cool that two artists, however many, can make music together without ever meeting. A rhythm track e-mailed to a lead guitarist e-mailed to a vocalist e-mailed to a horn player — you've got a band! Particularly in underground hip-hop, it's plenty normal for an MC's record to be built from beats created by half-a-dozen producers living all around the world. Why not?
So much of the attention ends up being on the MC, though. The beats and production can be great, but they tend to just be a canvas on which the MC paints. No one cares who stretched the canvas and prepared it.
That's why it's nice to hear a record like Trails' Fits & Starts. Similar to discs released locally by the likes of Mike Clouds and Moshe, it is at least producer-heavy, if not producer-centric. TheLin is active throughout, scratching, playing guitar riffs, sampling. What stands out about this album is that it feels more constructed, more "played," than a lot of contemporary underground hip-hop albums. It feels more organic, more like a band.
As such, Syn the Shaman plays the role of frontman. He has a full and heavy delivery. There is gravitas there. His anger is palpable and feels important. And through 16 tracks and nearly an hour of music, there is a lot of it. Sometimes, the impact wanes and wears out. It can become a bludgeoning that you start to endure rather than enjoy.
Luckily, the pair bring in a fair amount of guests to mix things up and offer highlights to serve as guideposts.
Kristina Kentigian, the one-time K-Soul, puts in a nice turn serving as the chorus of sorts in "Heavy Fever," as Shaman riffs on Trails as a drug reference: "Can't focus on the story, the book, or even the words I'm reading." Part of the fun of this album, actually, is the way they pull Trails references throughout the disc. There's even an interlude, "Here Let Me Explain," where they've got an old lady talking about those trails that nut jobs worry planes leave behind and sprinkle down on us.
Although, according to this gal, "trails come down on people and try to modify some of the bad effects of pollution."
There's also "Crooked Trail Through a Broken Home," with minimal dark production in the background, heavy on the synths and angry: "It's telling me everything besides the truth." After the first verse, a sax comes in, backed by laser beams. "I've had many melancholy days," raps Syn. "Honestly, I'm used to being abused."
Later, in "Fallen," one of the few truly narrative tracks here, we get another depressing turn about the loss of a loved one. "How do you tell a good friend that we lost a good friend?" Again, a horn is prominent in the melody, this time a trumpet that pierces through the snare-heavy beat.
"Fallen" is also notable for its repeated chorus, something you won't find much here. TheLin does do a nice job, though, of choosing at least one element, sometimes a sampled female vocal, sometimes a guitar lick, to repeat and offer to the listener as a familiar refrain.