The Seattle duo of Stasia ‘Stas‘ Irons and Catherine ‘Cat‘ Harris-White, together THEESatisfaction, seemed to strike upon a fresh approach to contemporary black music on their debut album AwE NaturalE. Not quite hip hop, but also not quite R&B, its purposefully brief, sketchy songs created a sense of radicalism and disorientation. It was compelling in its own right – giving the duo an original identity away from their association with Shabazz Palaces (who again feature on this follow-up).
EarthEE is less fragmented, and a little more coherent thematically too, as Stas and Cat address environmental themes, as well as addressing racism. It is arguable that their retro-futurist music loses something of its appeal in becoming less scattershot, although there are still some unexpected endings, as songs fade out or simply stop before they appear to have finished. Still, it comes as something of a surprise that there is a section of this album (tracks 5-11), where the duration never dips below 3 minutes. Sonically, where AwE NaturalE had a varied palette of textures and tones, from piano emulators to synth pads, EarthEE strives for a much more consistent sound, for the most part favouring echo-laden, atmospheric swathes of sound over the more percussive edge of its predecessor. There’s nothing here as urgent or strikingly minimal as Bitch, or as insistent and bold as QueenS.
Nevertheless, Stas and Cat should be credited for not repeating themselves. Vocal melodies and harmonies are given greater prominence here, and Erykah Badu (particularly the New Amerykah double set) appears to have been a major influence, both in terms of the socially conscious lyrics, and in terms of the sound and harmonic choices. Rather than moving awkwardly from one style and feel to another, EarthEE mostly sticks to mid-tempo grooves, some of which float impressionistically, lacking dynamic contrast. The album’s sci-fi, cinematic feel is perhaps best epitomised on the excellent Fetch/Catch. There’s a danger at a couple of points that the title of Blandland might also serve to describe the music, something that definitely could not be said of their debut.
Mostly, though, Stas and Cat are too intelligent and intuitive for that. Melodically, EarthEE is sophisticated and engaging, with the vocal lines refusing to conform to predictable patterns. There are also some moments where a slight injection of pace serves to keep things stimulating – not least on the more percussive groove of Nature’s Candy or on the lightly dancing feel on Recognition.
Perhaps most satisfying of all is the way in which the inevitable guest artists serve complementary or enriching roles, rather than simply being a trophy presence. TheeSatisfaction perhaps seem a little over-keen to acknowledge a debt to Shabazz Palaces, but the two tracks featuring Me’Shell Ndegeocello (the spiralling Universal Perspective and the groovy but restrained WerQ) are elaborate and deep. Tinged with jazz and various world music, this is aware and absorbing music, conscious in a broad sense, sometimes circuitous, but mostly questioning and satisfying.