It’s a Friday night in the East Village, and there’s a line of twenty-somethings crowding the sidewalk of East 11th and Third Avenue. The line travels the entire block, flowing past the AMC and the flower stand of the Westside Market until it turns another corner. Among the faces are music fans flexing band merch t-shirts, standalone men with thick mustaches and cuffed skater beanies, friend groups passing around vape pens, out-of-place older couples supervising their underaged kids, and the reluctant few who tagged along with their partners. As the mass of people emerge into Webster Hall, the line starts to fan out. Everyone makes their way upstairs and links up again in the pit. Soon, the floor is packed, spilling over into the lobby.
Mild High Club, a band to some and an icon to others, returns after a four-year hiatus. Out of nowhere, the music group released “Going Going Gone,” which dropped a week before their tour dates in Los Angeles and New York. “Going Going Gone” is a genre-defying, kaleidoscopic album that distinguishes itself from previous projects.
The man behind Mild High Club is LA-based multi-instrumentalist Alex Brettin, who has amassed two different kinds of fans: people who need background study music and people who are musicians themselves. The latter is a subculture of musicians who love jazz, experimentation, colorful sounds, unconventional chord progressions, and time signatures.
This past September, another album drop caused a stir –– but from a very different music scene. Although there might be some overlap in the fanbase, the UK-based rapper Little Simz has a following of her own, appealing to hip hop heads, rappers, and young people of color. Little Simz, affectionately known as Simbi, glows with effortless stage presence, steez, and flair, visible in her new music videos and most recent NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert.
With her new release, “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert,” or “SIMBI,” Little Simz picks up where she left off from her 2019 album “GREY Area” and takes us to another level. The album’s genesis began in 2020 — when Simz started to get back into the studio to work on new music. “It’s cool to start projects…not putting too much stress on it,” Simz said in an interview with her creative director, Jeremy Cole. “Just go and get out whatever you want to say…just say what you want to say,” Simz emphasized. The album is a celebration of hip hop, women, introversion, and Simz’s journey as an artist, after staking a name for herself in a rap world heavily dominated by men.
“Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” is an album that deserves to be listened to from start to finish, the type of album that stops even the most engrossing conversation mid-sentence. It is an outpour of good energy, head-bobbing grooves, and hype bars meant to “[disturb] the peace.” Little Simz’s delivery is intricate and rhythmic, with a dynamism that other rappers should be paying attention to. “Keep it on the move, I’m never static / I go in the booth and show you magic.” In other words, Little Simz could rap over anything and make it sound good. The variety of beats are endless, ranging from jazz drumming to afrobeats to a minimalistic, bare-bones trap. While each song flows into the next, Little Simz isn’t afraid to switch it up. One minute listeners might be moshing and grooving, and the next second they’ll be out the door ready to answer Simz’s call to arms. Both Little Simz’s “SIMBI” and Mild High Club’s “Going Going Gone” diverge from the artists’ previous projects, experimenting with eclectic sounds and building upon the work of important artists from older generations.
Mild High Club’s latest album is rich with sonic texture, vibrancy, and cheekiness, displaying underlying political themes and commentary on capitalist culture. The climax of “Going Gone Gone” is “Me Myself and Dollar Hell,” where Brettin touches on American gun control and climate change. He sings how he’s “got the plastic blues / And all the green’s skimmed off the top.” The song is punctuated with the sound of twinkling keys, a lighthearted guitar riff, and the opening of a cash register. It ends with an eerie melodica solo that creates a tense resolution, leaving the listener on edge.
“Going Going Gone” presents short, vignette-like sequences of aural imagery and chaotic instrumentation. The album is a testament to Brettin’s ability to turn one music genre, such as bossa nova, into something with an entirely different flavor. “A New High,” which features vocals from the bilingual Brazilian singer Winter, opens with a classical piano overture that evokes Ahmad Jamal’s jazz tune “Poinciana.” As the intensity heightens, the listener is swept away into a bossa nova groove with whimsical sounds of a cabasa, a sax solo, and jazz piano licks. The animated music video for “A New High” is like glimpsing a daydream inside Alex Brettin’s head. A carefree, bird-like creature sashays their hips and dances samba to a loop of a floating sunset landscape with pulsing disco colors. Behind the creature is a cosmic world with vortex shapes, milky galaxies, and “um infinito céu” (an infinite sky). Other songs like “I Don’t Mind the Wait” demonstrate a strong Brazilian bossa nova and jazz influences, with subtle percussive sounds such as bongos and the high-pitched cuíca. Brettin adds an entirely new dimension with out-of-this-world synth melodies that evoke an ’80s video game theme song.
Little Simz is also a musician who is not afraid to experiment with music genres outside of the conventional boundaries of rap music production. “Protect My Energy” is a surprising addition to the album, with upbeat synth and wavy modulations reminiscent of Little Dragon’s “Season High” or Toro y Moi’s “Outer Peace.” Simz sings along in a playful, freewheeling voice, demonstrating her versatility as a vocalist. This song addresses her introverted persona, informing the listener that “Internal guidance / Is all that I seek / Don’t disturb my inner peace.” From witty disses to introspective musings, there is a whole spectrum of moods in this album that reveal a more vulnerable side to Simz. In comparison to the opening track of “SIMBI,” with its crescendo of bombastic orchestral outbursts, tight snare hits, and cymbal crashes, “Two Worlds Apart” slows down the album’s pace and bounces on a mellow groove with catchy, repetitive lyrics. Simz’s even-toned bars ride on a heart-wrenching Smokey Robinson sample. “Two Worlds Apart” builds on the tradition of sampling legendary soul artists, creating a modern vibe, “but still [feeling] old-school and really hip hop.” Simz doesn’t allow Smokey Robinson’s hook to overpower the song — instead, she makes it her own.
While Little Simz and Alex Brettin are the visionaries behind the albums, their music-making is a collective endeavor, relying on collaboration, experimentation, and creative process. Simz describes the studio as a safe space where she can bring up anything. “A lot of the sessions are definitely us just talking,” Simz says. “It stays within those four walls of the studio, and if I wanna put it on paper I can.” Brettin, as a one-man band, brings on friends, local LA musicians, and talented producers like Knxlwedge and Vicky “Farewell” Nguyen to fill in his gaps. Throughout their respective music careers, Brettin and Simz have built a sense of community, not only by working with other artists but by creating genre-bending music that speaks and connects with millions of listeners.
Tonight, Mild High Club consists of Alex Brettin, the rhythm and horn section, and two synth players that sit facing each other. Brettin is constantly moving, switching between vocals to synth to melodica to shaker to guitar. His singing is laidback, his dance movements loose and goofy.
Webster Hall is a full house, packed with concertgoers who haven’t been to a show in over a year and new fans who discovered Mild High Club over quarantine. Everyone hypes up the band, cheering after every musician’s solo and clutching their friends when the more popular songs like “Tesselation” and “Skiptracing” come on. Wavy lights illuminate people’s dyed hair and glittery eye makeup. A disco ball scatters colors on the tops of heads.
Sometime during the set, there’s a turning point where the crowd warms up and lets their hair down. There are people singing over Brettin, swaying in place, or forming mosh pits, and nobody notices the night passing as they’re swept away by the groove. Even after the encore, when the lights turn on and the moment is over, people linger behind to chat and dance — ears buzzing with new sounds, vibrations, and ideas about what music could be.