**1/2 (out of four)
Chicago's dance music scene, whether in its original house setting or more recent electro incarnations, has always been distinctly urban: boisterous, cluttered but regimented, social. But Columbia College student Nick Zanca, aka Mister Lies, is not originally from Chicago. Physically he's from New England; generationally he's from the post-geography of the Internet. His influences are Portishead and Burial, not Cajmere and Frankie Knuckles. His setting for recording much of his debut album, “Mowgli,” was a cabin in Vermont.
His music, accordingly, is pastoral, as much as that can be said about something electronic. It's not shy about the idea, either: Vocal interlude “Canaan” delivers a monologue (a sample or an imitation of one?) about the “tamed country aesthetic in which he sought solace,” and the album ends with a sample of a CTA intercom for the “Blue Line train to O'Hare,” a sort of ceremonial re-immersion in the city. But if the ideas can sometimes come across a bit simplistic – some of the tracks spend far too long in one stripped-down groove – the timing is impeccable.
“Mowgli” feels engineered for this late-winter season, its spare notes and drifting spaces forming the perfect soundtrack for padding through quiet, wide-open snow drifts. The intermittent plinks of opener “Ashore” are like icicles melting under a weak sun, until the track explodes in an excited swell of blown-out bass. “Trustfall” grows serenely, like budding tree leaves, while “Align” and “Ludlow” roam through what feels like an empty outdoors.
The influences sometimes are clear, but there are worse fates that sounding a little too much like Radiohead, Burial and Toro Y Moi. Mister Lies clearly is still growing as an artist, but the feeling of austere beauty is already there, like the first tentative blooms of spring.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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