Shigeto - Versions EP (a review)

Versions  album cover, by Tyree Guyton of The Heidelberg Project. Original image at click-through link.

Versions album cover, by Tyree Guyton of The Heidelberg Project. Original image at click-through link.

If my memory is correct, I was first exposed to Shigeto’s work through the hip-hop and ambient-influenced beat tape that is No Better Time Than Now. When the groove came in under that watery kalimba sample on Detroit Part 1, only to quickly fade out into an almost nonsensical electronic outro, I was quickly taken by his approach to songwriting. Obviously I went back at the time to listen to his 2010 LP’s, and in doing so realized Shigeto (Zach Saginaw) wasn’t only a competent songwriter, the production on each of his releases is never short of great. Needless to say when I opened Play Music (yes, I’m a GPM pleb. Don’t @ me) to see an unexpected new album from the Detroit producer, my expectations were already high.

Here’s the thing though; I had no idea Saginaw was a jazz drummer. The influence of a modern jazz education (or at least it’s sensibilities) is pretty clear throughout his discography, especially from The New Monday onward, but I would never have expected such a lively in-house sound as he brought on this record. Versions sees Saginaw and some allies from his high school days at Ann Arbor Community High School joining together for a full on jam session, reworking tracks from previous albums with an ensemble lineup and a more live-room production style.

Opening with a flourish from Saginaw on drums and Marcus Elliot on sax, the first track Back to Basics re-purposes 2017’s In Case You Forgot, with the drums busily shuffling away under some sparkling vibed-out chords from Ian Fink. Though the band never goes all-out here, the hasty, eager energy eventually gives way to a gorgeous key solo supported by Brennan Duncan’s bass. It’s a simple track, returning for a brief reprisal of the lead melody before ending as quickly as it began under a rainfall of cymbals and sax. I thought this was an effective opener, really cementing the feeling that you’re observing a tight live performance.

That energy continues into MCW, which reworks the already syncopated and groovy Field Trip (2012) into a full on cabana house dance number thanks to Dez Andréz’ impeccable percussion work. The band feels really in sync on this track; everyone knows their place in the pocket, and the groove absolutely carried me. Persisting even through the sudden splash into ambiance roughly halfway in (which Christopher Koltay slathers in lavish synths and reverse-delay). My head just kept bobbing into the surprisingly bluesy organ solo that followed. In true house band fashion we get the lead melody a few more times to finish off the track in a familiar place. Honestly I could just have this track loop for hours so I can feel like I’m conducting some sort of espionage mission on a white-sand beach somewhere and I would be quite happy.

The third track Divine Family dispenses with the energy of the previous two, swelling slowly into an ambient, suspended texture as Elliot’s sax spins around Saginaw’s ambling drums until they settle into a groove. This doesn’t last long, as the song quickly destroys itself in a wash of what sounds like tape delay and pure nostalgic energy. That shift in texture leaves room for a short audio clip to play, which presents a pretty straightforward thesis for the album: “Don’t be afraid to find yourself… the reason for your name.” 

Story time. My first listen of this album felt strangely transcendental. I had been driving to the upbeat grooves of the earlier tracks, when the sun suddenly slid behind a cumulus cloud as this one began. Just as I parked the car at my destination, the music faded into the previously mentioned clip and I sat there in awe for a minute. As do most people at my age (precariously near-thirty), I’ve been experiencing a bit of an existential crisis. One in which I’ve become progressively more bitter with myself over the cold disconnection from others that I had developed in adolescence, whether through social media or something else. The track gave me plenty of time to dwell on that before moving on, as if it was just there with me, allowing me to feel something with it for a moment. Reflective moments like this exist throughout Saginaw’s body of work and it was a welcome inclusion here. But that’s enough of an aside, back to the show...

The band takes us out with River Bank Drive (formerly Huron River Drive, another Lineage cut). Slowly pulling the listener back in with a shuffle-ready snare and burbling bass licks, this track feels the most resolved of them all. The band sounds happy to have made it through the chaos of their previous number, settling in for a pleasant jam with the boys. Of course, I could be projecting. This almost lazy-night-in sound drops out at roughly the halfway point so the pair of percussionists can shift tempo and lean into a thick back-beat. Everyone joins in, building on a straight-eight vamp which lets loose occasionally into the lovely sax melody. I was mildly disappointed with the track’s ending, not because it was sub-par, but because I was instantly sad that it was over.

I look forward to seeing more from this side of Shigeto, especially in the form of fresh material, and if my (extremely limited and under-researched) understanding of where he’s at as a producer and musician is at all correct then I suspect we won’t have to wait long. This short EP has already recolored his previous material for me, considering I had assumed his drum work on songs like Soul Searching were most likely just gathered from a sample library somewhere. For whatever reason it’s nice to know a producer has that extra layer of intimacy and experience with a certain instrument. 

Anyway, that’s enough of that! Versions gets a solid “resolved existential crisis” out of 10 from me. What do you think? You can shout at me about it on TWITTER or INSTAGRAM, or if you want to leave me a strongly worded message about how I fundamentally misunderstood something, fuck off! Or use the CONTACT page. That also works. Thanks for reading, and have a fantastic whatever day it is!

Written by, Joseph R. Strom (editor)

Here’s Shigeto - Versions on SPOTIFY