Alias & Ehren: Lillian

While devotees of 2003's Muted might have thought Brendon Whitney's next Alias venture would plunge even deeper into hip-hop, those familiar with his contributions to recent recordings by Styrofoam and Lali Puna might have anticipated a slightly different sound. As it turns out, Lillian, Alias's third full-length and first collaborative instrumental album (with younger brother Ehren), conflates the two directions by pairing the hip-hop beats of Muted with a more linear and atmospheric style compared to its predecessor. Though there are occasional voice samples, Lillian eschews the aggressive attack of MCs for elegant melodicism.

Upon hearing Muted, Ehren, armed with flute, alto sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, flew to Oakland to join Alias for what would hopefully become a fruitful collaboration. The 57-minute result is anything but a sloppy exercise in nepotism. On the contrary, Ehren (still only a teenager and younger than Brendon by eleven years) holds his own as a credible instrumentalist, even if his contributions more colouristically blend into the overall fabric than dominate with robust soloing.

Though it includes pretty interludes (“Sunfuzz” and “Moonfuzz”) and a few sketchy pieces, for the most part Lillian's compositions dramatically move through crescendos and diminuendos and gradually escalate towards climaxes. “Back and Forth,” for instance, begins in melodic electronica mode with a softly meandering clarinet line floating over subtle pitter-patter; then, as happens in many pieces, Alias's roaring beats appear halfway through, elevating the intensity, in this case capped by Ehren's soprano which waxes freely before taking a rather Arabic turn (a similarly exotic scent wafts through the dubby “Narrowed Iris” with its free flute playing and dark, swooping strings).

The album includes its share of dreamy moments: named after their grandmother (who died of cancer in 1994), the lovely title piece unfolds gently with sparkling washes deepened by Ehren's sax musings; “52nd & West” conjures a sunny vibe from surging strings, thrumming beats, willowy flute lines, and bright synth streams; and “Most Important Things” merges skittering beats with smooth sax playing over a bed of warm electronic glistens. The album's most impressive outing, “Miso Stomp,” builds gradually, its stuttering backing joined by dreamy clarinet playing and, eventually, thrumming beat splatter. At album's end, the brothers include a scratchy duet of sax and out-of-tune piano, Alias and Ehren perhaps serenading (or memorializing) their grandmother with an old standard—a sweet and graceful coda.

September 2005