Within seconds of hitting play on Joe Kye’s debut album, Migrants, you hear something both delightfully unique and naggingly familiar. Figuring out how and why it can be both is something of a challenge. It sounds a little like Beirut with its plucky, playful instrumentation, but the actual melody structure rings more of jazz than folk. It sounds a little like Agnes Obel, just from the carefully structured loops, but it’s definitely got more cheek. While it may not be quite like what you’ve heard before, there’s an atmosphere to the album that suggests, well, maybe you have heard it before. What gives it that quality? It’s the NPR effect.
No, Kye’s 2016 appearance on NPR’s “Science Friday” did not magically slip his music into the subconscious of every American. But there’s a reason the show had him on: he sounds how NPR feels. NPR has a tone that’s at once classy and intelligent, but not at all forbidding. That’s a tone a first-time listener will recognize immediately, because from the way Kye constructs songs, there’s no way to miss it. There are a lot of elements in each track: rhythm from the violin, melody from the violin, percussion, vocals, loops, even more violin, now layered on top of itself. However, it’s never cluttered, but complex. That complexity paired with Kye’s signature instrument (you guessed it, the violin) culminates in a sheer sense of sophistication. He’s a smart musician, plain and simple.
Another component of Kye’s NPR vibe is how contemporary Migrants sounds. A lot of that comes from the rap features, which make the album instantly accessible. Rap on a non-rap album can easily go gimmicky, but Kye and his collaborators Jason Chu and Rasar (both spoken word poets originating from southern California) strike the right balance with no problem. On “Fall In,” a few bars give the song the punch it needs. Especially impressive was Rasar’s work on “Happy Song.” Rasar’s background both in spoken word and in the fusion hip hop group The Lique facilitates a comfortable, compelling rhythm that makes the song vital where it could have easily been passive. Rasar raps like his words are blooming, and his language matches that hopeful tilt: “I dream of escaping this madness that surrounds us, confounds us, leaves us astounded and doubtful of love around us/When all I have to do is say hello, how are you, how does it feel, is that so, is that true for you too?” The message of community and cooperation would fit right in on (that’s right) NPR, and so fits right in on Migrants. All in all, rap does the album a great service in making it feel more modern, more ahead of the curve. It takes the album from good to great.
However, celebrating Chu and Rasar’s performance is not at all to discount Kye’s own vocals. He displays great versatility, and delivers sincerity without going too raw or personal. On “Stick On Me,” you can practically hear Kye’s smirk as he sings, “So stick on me/and go lick your wounds,” right on top of some carefree scat that shows a real familiarity with technique and composition. In the track immediately following, “I Know,” Kye is heartfelt and earnest. It’s emotive storytelling without committing to the point of melodrama, and so keeps the album easy to listen to. Just as integral to the album is, as mentioned a few times by now, Kye’s violin. It’s like his second voice, I could even argue, or his voice is like a second violin. On most tracks, the violin is the element that takes the lead. “Bambam’s Lullaby” in particular is a celebration of the instrument, using both plucking and bowing supporting Kye’s voice as well as going on its own musical adventures. Similarly to the rap features, Kye’s violin could have become nothing but novel, but instead his talent and experience make it a delight.
Migrants could benefit from a few more moments of emotion, possibly a little more bass or percussion to give it some greater depth of sound, but these are tiny quibbles that I’m ready to dismiss. Frankly, the album is too darling and sunny to take up any serious complaints about it. Though it’s only January now, I’m already stashing this album for my summer playlists, and I suggest you do as well. This is a charming album that takes no effort to listen to and process— which definitely means that Kye put a lot of effort into writing and executing it. Turn it up for your next jazzy brunch or jaunty walk through a garden.