Where Will We Go, asked 23-year-old Washingtonian Nick Hakim in 2014, over two EPs of gently mind-expanding R&B. Woozily pondering Heaven (“What if heaven’s right here?”) one moment, and more earthbound destinations in another (“I sleepwalk back home/with the stench of her perfume all on my coat” – Pour Another), the end may have been unclear, but the journey sounded smooth. The songs were rooted in neo-soul, but the edges were fuzzy, with Hakim’s voice often pitched on the crackling edge of break-up, indistinct amid rich, yawning soundscapes or steadily trickling over skeletal piano and ambient noise.
Now, with debut Green Twins, Hakim’s taking us somewhere else entirely, exploring the outer reaches of psychedelic soul. The name came from a surreal, grisly dream involving “two little green babies … made out of some green jello”, and the title track makes for a low-key, contemplative opener. Over a hushed, hissing piano track, and disjointed, distorted beats, Hakim almost sighs a vocal which links the imagined “green twins with your eyes” to hopes for stability that went unfulfilled (“I wanted to start it with you/But somebody said we ain’t ready”).
By the next song, he’s still lost, but serene, and Bet She Looks Like You is probably the standout track here. Swaying between a Prince take on Pet Sounds and the blissed-out sampladelic soul of the Avalanches’ Since I Left You, it points its tinkling xylophones and swirling strings – and a satisfyingly chewy, reverb-soaked guitar solo – at the skies in an ode to love exalted (“If there’s a God I wonder what she looks like,” Hakim croons; “I bet she looks like you”).
Roller Skates follows, a lysergic Stylistics on a stoned suburban bike-ride, with a tired, washed-out lead line, bright flickering guitar and choral backing vocals which clip and frazzle like celluloid catching in the gate, disintegrating in a dazzling whoosh of light and colour.
If the album is never quite this good again, it’s still a fascinating listen, and this opening trio sets the tone for the rest of Green Twins’ trippily soulful wanderings. Most of the songs here started life as memos and rough four-track sketches which Hakim, a Berklee College graduate (like St Vincent, Donald Fagen, or Gillian Welch) recorded in his bedroom before taking them to studios to flesh out, rather than record again. The lines between the traditional process of demoing then recording an album are getting more and more blurred for artists like Hakim, and this approach lends a close, heady intimacy, no matter how spacious and wild the arrangements.
There’s Needy Bees, which opens at a mournful, piano-led pace, with a weary Hakim urging a lover (or it could be the listener) to “let me inside of your mind”; the elements steadily pile around him with layers of falsetto vocals before a haunted fairground organ appears sending the whole arrangement whirling into the ether. Or Cuffed, a slow-jam with mellotron, burbling, melodic bass and loose, clattering percussion. Miss Chew, meanwhile, throws old-timey brass flourishes and flailing, skronking sax at Jeff Buckley-esque guitar shimmer and heartbroken murmur.
Lush and atmospheric, with shades of the paisley funk of Shuggie Otis, the laid-back, freewheeling early ‘70s Marvin Gaye and Todd Rundgren’s cosmic mishmash (with centrepiece soul medley) – A Wizard, A True Star, Green Twins demands your attention, in a subtle but compelling way. If Hakim ever comes back to earth, it’ll be interesting to see where he takes us next.