It's Pretty OK
Solving the paradoxes of our time since 2016

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New Song Friday: "Underwaterfall" - Bearcubs

If you're a fan of James Blake, I think you're really going to enjoy this week’s song. When I first heard “Underwaterfall,” I thought it was Blake singing for some new project he had started, but apparently I was wrong. Here’s the track:

Bearcubs is the brainchild of Jack Ritchie, a producer based in the Brighton area of London. He’s said that Brighton has profoundly affected his musical style, but given the pattern of the last several weeks, it should come as no surprise that I don’t really have much else on the guy. Smaller, up-and-coming artists can be pretty hard to dig up information on.

Isn't it a bit interesting that “Underwaterfall” sounds so similar to the music of James Blake? I think it's cool that they do have a similar vibe and it makes sense that it's the case as both artists are based out of London and produce "electronic" music. But when you think about it a bit, it's really not all that surprising. Historically, lots of geographical regions feature stylistic similarities among their various artists.

In the case of Bearcubs and James Blake, I'm not sure I have a great way to categorize their sound (some mix of electronic, bass, and soul) but in the end, who cares? They come from a similar place and share a similar sound– maybe they even know some of the same people?

Ritchie makes a very intelligent choice to start “Underwaterfall“ – he uses steel drums. My college music professor swore by steel drums, xylophones, glockenspiels, and other pitched percussion instruments in digital music creation, because their digital replicates sound very true to the actual instruments.

I can't say with certainty that the steel drums he uses aren't recorded, but I believe they're purely digital. Assuming that they are digital, compare how they sound to a live recording of steel drums and they should be reasonably similar. But listen to some digital trumpets compared to live recorded trumpets, and the difference is striking. Anyways, the song opens with steel drums: A set of low hits builds the bass, while higher-pitched drums create the melody.

Then Ritchie slowly adds some fun sounds to create a nice mix. First, a clapping sound like a block of wood being struck. Then a sound like a ticking clock. When I first heard the tick, it brought me back to standardized testing session growing up. You'd be in this tiny room that was almost completely silent except for the sound of pencils writing, pages turning, and the clicking hands of the clock at the front of the room – but I digress.

At this point, Ritchie starts singing over the beat…and it sounds just like James Blake, though I will say that the composition of the song does not sound nearly as "James Blake" as Ritchie's vocals do. The beat builds, contrasting Ritchie's relaxed vocals with heavy electronic bass elements to create a climatic chorus.

The song bottoms out following the chorus, and you are brought back to the beginning of the song – clocks ticking, steel drums, and no vocals. Ritchie lets the listener marinate in this sauce he's created in order to build anticipation for the return of his vocals.

On repeated plays of this song, I found it striking how catchy the song is, contrasted with his seemingly effortless, careless vocals. Similar to James Blake’s “Retrogade,” “Underwaterfall” is a very atmospheric song with clear and well-accented climatic moments. However, the vocalist in both songs feels so relaxed and at easy that it seems like he doesn't care, which creates this really cool contrast to the pounding beats that are swelling in the background.

Eventually, Ritchie gives us what we’ve been waiting for with a final chorus. The song’s not quite over at yet, though. At the very end, Ritchie seemingly plays the beat he has built backwards (I’m not positive that this is what’s happening) while dropping out much of the background electronic noise he built upon. It's a contrasting ending that left me with a sort of uneasiness – but then again, the whole piece has an eerie, uneasy vibe to it.

I can't really make sense of the lyrics for this song, as the vocals are not clear and often obscured by the background sounds. And I can’t find them listed online anywhere, so I can't analyze the meaning there either. What I can tell you is that the piece feels uneasy to me.

It actually encapsulates my personal feelings on London very well. When I think of London and all the times I've been there, I think of this grey, slightly rainy city with cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways. It's not an uninviting place – I love London, but as an unfamiliar outsider, it has a certain amount of uneasiness to it. If Ritchie is a product of his environment, and this song is an outward expression of that environment, then it fits my vision of the streets of London perfectly.

Bearcubs is touring the UK this spring, but if you don’t have the ability to check him out live, I would also suggest “Colours of Freedom.” It’s not nearly as dark and brooding as “Underwaterfall,” maybe more reminiscent of Tom Misch than James Blake.

Until next time!

-Ian Wood