Something to Feel
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Some musicians come to be through training. They are taught all of the terms and techniques that usually denote an expert. But then there are musicians that learn through exploration. They use trial and error to wander through the endless world that is music. And some of them arrive at greatness, showing us what's possible when you work outside of boundaries. This occurrence is embodied by Mac Ayres, a self-taught musician that shows immense skill on his debut LP Something to Feel.
Ayres hails from Long Island, New York, and his home there doubles as his studio. He recorded much of his new album and all of his previous EP Drive Slow (2017) at his home. Ayres is able to record this way largely because his music is self-generated. He is a vocalist, producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and while he does collaborate with other musicians on the album, the songs mainly derive from him.
For some artists, controlling every aspect of their music causes the final product to falter. Yet Ayres avoids that fate on Something to Feel, as he offers some of the most soulful R&B to be released in 2018. He uses live instrument play throughout the LP, creating a sound that shows the influence of legends like D'Angelo and Stevie Wonder. And vocally, Ayres is reminiscent of Jon B, as they both have slick tones that glide over tracks.
Ayres pulls from a rich musical history, but his work is a revamp of classic sounds rather than a cheap imitation. He makes this clear on the album's first song, "Next to You." The track opens with the crackling sound often heard on vintage recordings. Then, the keys and drums kick in, giving the song the funk of a '70s groove.
Ayres embraces tradition with the song's sound, but he diverges from tradition with his approach to the lyrics. He foregoes the expectation of verses separated by a bridge and chorus. Instead, he repeats a short refrain throughout the song. Some may deem his approach too lax, but it actually fits the track. The production sets a mood all on its own, so it only calls for a vocalist to punctuate it rather than overwhelm it.
There is a more balanced marriage between Ayres’ singing and production on "Under." The two elements move in unison from the jump, as his guitar play and vocals simultaneously begin the song. As the pre-chorus begins later on, the instrumentation becomes more layered. Ayres matches it by raising the conviction in his vocals. I scrunch my face each time he sings, "No good at fighting," because of how he leans into the lyrics. The words and their delivery are sentimental, pulling listeners into the emotion they convey. And the piano flourishes that pop up create peaks in the song's mood.
The next full song on the album is not as cheerful as "Under," but it is just as emotive. "Get to You Again" is the album's second single and it focuses on the desire for a lost love. The song has an entrancing air to it thanks to Ayres guitar play. He builds off of this atmosphere with lyrics that rely on charm rather than pleading. He sings, "I guess we'll meet again, my friend / It’s not so often that you come around / Until our track has seen its end / Imma be running, babe." He delivers these words with the ease of someone who knows a reunion is not a matter of "if," but "when." As a result, Ayres sounds sly and establishes his presence more strongly than any other performance on the album.
Romance marks much of Something to Feel, but Ayres speaks about another matter of the heart on "Waiting." Over breezy instrumentation, the singer reflects on what he wants to achieve as a musician. He says, "Ain't no more hesitating / I wanna say I made it / Tell me why have I been waiting / All, all my life." Ayres goes on to envision all of his shows selling out—a sign of more people recognizing his progress. Yet, he also hopes to keep the peace of mind granted by anonymity. The track is introspective, but its content does not stop it from being a groove. The combo of Ayres’ falsetto and the production will have you two-stepping like your favorite aunt at a cookout.
"Waiting" proves that Mac can sound smooth no matter what the topic is, but he is at his best on love songs and the album's closer is no exception. "Stay" showcases D'Angelo's influence on Ayres, as the song's stripped-down production channels "Untitled (How Does It Feel)." The soft backdrop amplifies the soothing quality of Ayres’ singing. And his lyrics convey the sincerity called for by the track. The end result is a song meant to be heard on a Sunday with someone special.
By any measure, Something to Feel is an impressive debut. Ayres is 21 years old, but he shows maturity beyond his years with his songwriting. His arrangements are rich and they mesh well with his vocals. It is exciting to think about what kind of artist Ayres will evolve into. But as we wait, we can appreciate the great work he has already done.
Notable Tracks: “Get to You Again” | “Stay” | “Under” | “Waiting”