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Local alt hip-hop duo shake off the frills on new EP

Definitively Little Stranger

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After releasing their 2015 debut Buddha the Beast, alternative hip-hop duo Little Stranger began their ascent up hype mountain and, as evidenced by their trophy for Hip-Hop Act of the Year at the 2016 City Paper Music Awards, they've gone pretty high up the peak. Knowing that band buzz can only carry them so far, the guys in Little Stranger hope to continue their two-year winning streak with a new EP titled Techniques.

Sure, producer John Shields and his not-blood-brother Kevin Shields have made a couple of trips around the sun since their debut, but they haven't lost the pop sensibilities that made Buddha the Beast a local favorite. In John's words, it's pretty much the contrary. "It feels like, more definitively, Little Stranger to us," he says.

It may come as a surprise to many of their fans, but the duo's debut wasn't meant to be a first chapter in their story, but a simple time-killing side project. Both John and Kevin had just seen their prior bands dissolve and were hoping that their respective groups would get back together. "So, the songs that we chose for that [first album] and put on it were not necessarily what we felt was the strongest material," John says.

Their "more focused" sound is visible on all five of Techniques' tracks. The opening song, "Bag Full of Money" is a good indicator of what to expect from the rest of the EP. It's tighter, less experimental, and shakes off all the frills. The duo use it to their advantage, making sure every melody, bass groove, and synth surge carries its weight.

That tightened focus is best seen on EP finale, "Gimme the Beat." John's production lays out wide instrumentation — horns, strings, bass, and a martian G-funk keyboard. All instruments have a part to play, but none overpowers the other — each takes turns at center stage, creating a darkened dance number to bring the album home.

It's just a normal trip to Little Stranger's strange land, as they are always attempting to touch on plenty of different styles. "Our whole thing is that we're not trying to really place ourselves in one particular scene," John says.

Little Stranger still keeps their broad production and quirky demeanor fully intact on Techniques. "Center of the Earth," a love song set during the apocalypse, makes good use of a pitch-shifted chorus that delivers a happy harmony in the middle of end-times imagery. "We try to keep it as far from generic as possible," John says. They make it playful, even in the midst of dark beats or brimstone subject matter.

Kevin Shields uses his bouncing vocal flow to paint a lyrical picture. "The Earth split in two right between me and you/ And the natural gases obstructed my view/ I shouted and shouted and shouted your name/ But with each exhalation results were the same." He plays skip-rope with the verses and only lets up the pressure to take a breath.

But, it's not Kevin's word placement that embeds him in the listener's brain — it's his ability to tell a story, as he shows on "Me & You," the first single from the EP. "A couple inches and a few years back/ I met this girl who had this wicked thing I lacked/ Nobody knew that we were sneaking around/ Finding funny spots where she and me could get down."

The Shields attribute the extra dose of Little Stranger to one key difference in the recording processes of Buddha the Beast and Techniques — they actually lived in the same city for the latter. "In the last two years, having Kevin live here [rather than Philadelphia], we've also created a brand and direction that maybe wasn't there quite before with the first release," says John.

John and Kevin are going to keep the momentum going after Techniques with the release of another EP later this year and a planned vinyl compilation of both. Little Stranger has discovered and honed their sound. They are no longer strangers to themselves and it doesn't look like they'll let any inertia settle in just yet.

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