It’s hard to get a bead on exactly what Minneapolis-based Jeremy Nutzman is up to with Neon Brown, his second LP as Velvet Negroni, which is part of why it’s good. You could almost call its dreamy trap-soul “new age” if that didn’t suggest a yin-yoga chill at odds with couplets like “Don’t fight your boy on the payphone/la la, I burst to flames like it’s Waco” and “Ultra fusion handsome dish/Feed them LSD like I’m Charlie Manson, bitch.” But Nutzman’s been refining his freaky attack in increments since his decidedly post-Weeknd Pony Bwoy project and T.C.O.D., the 2017 Negroni debut. And on Neon Brown, he’s hit on a balance of prettiness, weirdness and heart that’s unkempt and captivating.
Nutzman’s made some notable fans, including regional pointman Justin Vernon (he’s credited on the new Bon Iver LP), his pal Kanye West, and Kevin Parker (who gave Velvet Negroni the opening slot at Tame Impala’s recent Madison Square Garden gig). Nutzman’s approach echoes them all in his taste for human-digital mashups, a sound shaped by his Twin Cities fellow travelers Simon Christensen (Psymun) and Elliott Kozel (Tickle Torture). They’re comers, too: Psymun had a hand in Future and Juice WRLD’s “Fine China” and Young Thug’s “Chanel,” and has helped grow the local scene that’s raised Dizzy Fae and current valedictorian Lizzo. Both producers come off as students of classic headfuck music. “Confetti” sounds held together by the skeleton of a King Tubby dub beat, ditto the drum collage on the touchingly emo “Feel Let,” and the ghostly keyboard stabs of “Ectodub,” with its brain-scrambling backwards backing vocals.
Nutzman shows a similar taste for the disorienting, and his most gratuitously strange stuff is sometimes the most engaging. The reverberant acoustic beats on “Nester” suggest composer Harry Partch’s science lab gamelan, with rhymes full of wiggy free-association, suggesting a guy who defaults to cracking wise or tripping out whenever the emotional stakes rise. But that tension makes it more than just empty stoner riffage, and Nutzman’s rangey playfulness often leads him to great pop moments. Curiously, they often come at the end of songs. See the falsetto flourishes that cap “Feel Let,” or the kicker to “Scratchers,” when Nutzman chants “yippi-ki-yo” amidst a calliope whirl of synths and drum sputters, conjuring a country-western nonsense-phrase history that goes from Bing Crosby’s “I’m An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande),” to Sonny Rollins’ deconstruction of the same, to Bruce Willis’ Die Hard kiss-off. It’s a brief, dazzling passage on a record with quite a few, and if dude could ultimately do more with them, there’s enough here to make it worth the ride.