by Michele Zipkin
Chicago electro-soul duo M&O (shortened from Milo and Otis) played their first show in Philly at South Street’s Lickety Split this past Wednesday, April 16th. After testing out their extensive vocal pedals, Jamila Woods (“Milo”) and Owen Hill (“Otis”) proceeded to churn out head-nodding, intoxicating down-tempo soul. But it was soul tinged with the semi electro-pop flair of synthetic percussion and various other sonic accoutrements. Woods sang and played guitar while Hill played bass, at times half multitasking by leaning over to play keyboard.
The two partners in songwriting crime played tunes from their second full-length record, Almost Us, released on April 3rd, as well as from their debut LP, The Joy. They started with the song “House” from their sophomore effort. Featured in this song is Donnie Trumpet, a horn player once known as Nico Segal in a previous life in which he contributed to the album Traphouse Rock by Chicago indie band Kids These Days (that has since parted ways.) Donnie was not actually in the room that night, but the sweet, sometimes sliding soul-hop of his horn could be heard on a recording, and it sounded almost as good as if it were live.
If M&O haven’t completely smashed boundaries of genre, digital and acoustic amalgams, or song structure with the music they make, they have certainly bent them into new, fairly tortuous shapes. Soulful and expressive singing and R&B-infused bass lines combine with pre-recorded samples, overdubs, and an array of pretty dope vocal effects, to say the least.
For instance, in the beginning of “Blue,” the vocal pedal introduced Woods’ rich yet airy harmonies, adding a whole new dimension to the song. The hip-hop drum groove and synth-pop ornamentation ran an abrupt contrast to Woods’ flirtatious, sultry voice. She sang so effortlessly and energetically, moving her stories past mere vocal communication with her dynamic facial expressions and hand gestures.
But to harp on the fairly intricate display of vocal pedals crowded around Woods’ feet- they lent some very nifty effects to her voice and to the songs on the whole, including flecks of auto-tune, delay, and overdubbed harmonies. These effects served to add rhythmic depth just as well as tonal breadth. Woods’ and Hill’s approach to vocal ornamentation called to mind Imogen Heap or perhaps even Kimbra, for her affinity for vocal looping (both on the fly and premeditated.)
Though there was no on the fly recording of vocal loops that night (at least not to my knowledge), there were a few other technologically and aurally snappy aspects of this performance. At times, Woods appeared not to have been playing her guitar, but sound seemed to have been emanating from it. That’s because she was using an EBow, a device that functions as an electronic bow that, when pointed toward a specific guitar string, sustains the string essentially indefinitely.
The song “Tiny Soldiers,” one of the highlights for sure, sported a hot little drum groove, playful looped background vocals providing more complexity to the beat, and a saucy melody. That song set that little venue on fire, and showcased what the duet can really do. But really, every song in their set accomplished that. At risk of sounding cliché, the sky is most certainly the limit for this pair, but perhaps they push past it and soar into the atmosphere, fearlessly treading new stylistic territory. They are taking live and looped to a new level.