True artistry lives abundantly, pushing freely through limitless space without borders and isolation. It’s an endless medium, unworthy of man-made titles and sometimes unfathomed by the creator. Take Miles Davis, for instance, the iconic trumpeter who eventually traded his sleek Italian suits for more expressive, soul-drenched garments. That material transition also signified a musical evolution for the St. Louis native, as Davis combined his traditional bebop pedigree with the burgeoning funk and psych-rock of his era. The result was a magical mixture that forever changed the jazz landscape, even if it polarized his once-devoted fan base.
Far too often in music, we segregate genres and cast aside that which cannot be easily described. That unfortunate fate could fall upon Exray’s, a San Francisco duo whose boundless music brims with passionate energy and unfiltered emotions. On its self-titled debut album, the upstart group teeters effortlessly between acoustic folk, progressive rock and electro-pop, resulting in a cinematic recording that feels structured somehow, even if it’s a square peg jammed into a round hole. Much of this efficient recording is distorted, hazy and downright inaccessible, but its confusion and impatience works to its benefit, much too moody and expansive to be classified by fans and critics.
The focus of Exray’s isn’t revealed until the tenth song of its 12-track opus. “First few weeks, I had a lot of strange ideas,” lead vocalist Jon Bernson groans on the subdued “Enemy.” “Earth was a box, the moon was a bulb at the top of it.” While those words are seemingly disconnected, they’re poetically rich, adding a robust context to Exray’s brief history as a new outfit already respected for its raucous live shows and presence on the silver screen (“Hesitation,” a clear album highlight, was featured in The Social Network last year.) Bernson, already renowned for his folk aesthetic with Ray’s Vast Basement, suddenly ditched the concept in 2008 to work with producer Micheal Falsetto-Mapp on the Exray’s venture.
Sonically, the duo’s turbulent full-length debut correlates with its menacing Ammunition Teeth EP released in October, and leads to greater cohesion between Bernson and Mapp. On “Discolandia,” a bridge between “Hesitation” and “Stolen Postcard Sun,” the producer piles somewhat divergent sounds atop a drifting acoustic guitar to create an almost-indescribable shift at the album’s center. Then there’s the robotic cadence of “Forest of Sand,” the album’s centerpiece with stilted drums, distorted vocals and pace changes throughout the melody. It’s unclear just what Benson discusses on the song, except he eagerly attacks the soundtrack with an earnest anxiety that borders desperation.
After multiple listens to Exray’s, it’s tough to believe that Bernson and Mapp are still searching for group chemistry, especially since the album feels so natural. While this music is certainly an acquired taste, it still has the ability to captivate those with conservative palates. Freedom through song is certainly an attainable goal, and Exray’s has proven that it’s up for the challenge.