Defining memory through sound
Aaron Hemphill, former band member and songwriter for Liars, released his debut album, Scented Pictures as Nonpareils on April 6th. After playing with Liars alongside Angus Andrew from 2000 until his amicable departure in 2016, Hemphill would see the differences of working with a partner and working alone firsthand: “The difference with this is that you don’t have that other person to give you notes. You miss out on those suggestions—but then you can also get lost in it more easily. I really discovered the difference between writing six songs alone and finishing a record on your own,” he says. Through this different process of songwriting, Hemphill has churned out 40 minutes completely reflective of the workings of his own mind, taking listeners on a surreal trip through various peaks and valleys of the joy of pure musical experimentation.
With the world as his oyster, Hemphill decided to center his album around the concept he picked up from a Serbian classmate in a German class. She told him about collecting scented pictures in her childhood, which made Hemphill think about the impact of multi-sensory memories, whether they are commercially artificial or handmade and sentimental. With this idea in mind, he created Scented Pictures with the intent to fill in the gaps of his bright pop or alt-rock melodies with samples and snippets that went hand in hand with memories of his own.
As he introduces his listeners to his first sound as a solo artist in “I Can’t Feel the Freeze or Fade,” Hemphill immediately puts beautifully airy synths to use, choppily putting them together. The arrangement of these notes parallels the equally choppy percussion, which is just as abrupt and jumpy. Immediately, his experimentation with the process of recording itself is evident, as the synths and beats seem to cycle around the microphones that picked up their sounds. By the end of the one-minute track, Hemphill effortlessly showcases both his technical and creative prowess through the simplicity and effectiveness of “I Can’t Feel the Freeze or Fade” alone.
Throughout Scented Pictures, Hemphill creates bright pop music that is just a touch unsettling, enough to give the entire album an uncanny valley illusion: it is close to sounding fully joyous and happy, but the minor divergences from this mood make it much creepier than it would have sounded if it were obviously much less happy. A prime example of this is on “Cherry Cola,” a track as saccharine as its name suggests it would be, at least in the beginning. At first, electronic synths vibrate away under Hemphill’s croons, even if they are extremely rough in texture. However, as his voice fades away, it distorts into a scarily sparse electric rumble, as if Hemphill took his listeners into an alternate universe. Glitches tap away violently until it morphs right back into the original sound. However, it doesn’t seem as sunny as it did when Hemphill first started singing, especially with how indiscernible the lyrics are with his slurred and mumbled speech. By the time the ending extends into more chaotic glitches, Hemphill has created a physical sphere where is slightly sinful music can manifest itself.
Similarly, this odd combination of creepy and happy continue onto “Ditchglass, They Think.” Electronica squirms and slithers around the introduction, with an almost hip-hop inspired beat. Here, Hemphill’s whispered vocal delivery is almost akin to spoken-word, done to a spine-chilling extent. Even though the edges of each piece of “Ditchglass, They Think” don’t perfectly fit together, as the song progresses they slowly morph into each other’s boundaries, meshing and evolving as one. With ominous electronic beeps and buzzes and Hemphill’s screaming vocal harmonizations by the second half of the track, it is fitting that the drug-induced haze of it is inspired by sweltering LA skate days.
The title track of Scented Pictures is where we see Hemphill’s creative finesse regarding distortion on full display. Here, things take a gentle turn with a short and light piano melody looped over and over, textured with light distortion at the end of each note. The distortion slowly takes over, resulting in warbling remainder of the light and airy instrumental we initially heard. Hemphill plays with our memory of his music by reintroducing the initial piano melody, letting it play alongside its darker alter ego. Suddenly, lots of noise comes into the background, overtaking everything until a cleaner single synth hums away. Here, the first undistorted texture emerges: his voice, unfiltered and presented in its raw state, takes center stage, but only for a quick moment in time. He applies light distortion to a vocal texture that functions as a beat under the main vocal melody, accompanying the pop melody with an intricately simple instrumental. By the end of the track, every other sound has faded out, save for the light piano listeners initially heard. There, it’s left to rumble in the background until the distortion takes over once more.
With all of his songs on Scented Pictures, Hemphill creates sonic storylines filled to the brim with indiscernible emotions. Though he humbly describes the methods he used to create Scented Pictures as akin to the cheap sprinkles that Nonpareils is named after, it is clear that only a man with as much expertise and refined tastes as Hemphill could describe the sonic dive into the human memory as a cheap but rewarding trick. No matter how he got there, Hemphill presents the workings of his mind in a satisfyingly strong solo debut.