This week’s ALT 104.5 New Music Discovery Of The Week is “Living In A Haze” by Milky Chance
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They won’t tell you this, but Milky Chance — the unassuming German duo of childhood friends Clemens Rehbein and Phillipp Dausch — are one of the biggest bands in the world. As they get ready to share the idiosyncratic and inventive pop songs that populate their new album Living In A Haze, they proudly boast over 10 million monthly Spotify listeners, an enviable touring resume (including festivals like Coachella, Reading & Leeds, and Lollapalooza), an upcoming schedule of 2023 dates that represent their biggest headline shows of their career, and a global audience stretching from the US and Mexico to the EU, Australia, and beyond. Over the course of their decade-plus as a band, they’ve proven themselves to be an elusive entity: the rare organism that has evolved to survive and thrive in an increasingly precarious music industry.
In an era where there’s no shortage of hucksters offering shaky advice to burgeoning musicians, Milky Chance are resistant to offering any kind of careerist insight on longevity. Instead, Rehbein offers a more straightforward philosophical suggestion: “The best thing we ever did for ourselves, artistically, was maintain a real sense of naivety. Maybe it’s because we met so young but playing music together feels just like that: Playing. Whatever we’re doing, we try to let a childlike intuition, serendipity, and sense of discovery lead the way.”
Right as the band started, their runaway hit “Stolen Dance” — which just surpassed over 1 billion streams on Spotify — gifted Rehbein and Dausch with a platform far beyond what the duo could have imagined when they first recorded the track on a minimal home setup. But that kind of success breeds pressure from all sorts of stakeholders to recreate a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Not that Milky Chance let that get to them.
“While we were vaguely aware that there were expectations to follow-up the success of that first album,” says Dausch, “we were largely able to ignore it. Probably because we were so young and things like playing festivals or going into the studio were still so new and exciting. Most of the other noise passed us by.”
While they’re justifiably proud of their studio work following “Stolen Dance” — their 2014 debut Sadnecessary broke them as a global streaming and touring act, while 2017’s Blossom and 2019’s Mind The Moon found them building outwards from an established identity and taking advantage of new resources to collaborate with heroes like Jack Johnson and Ladysmith Black Mambazo — their recent decision to go independent has given Milky Chance a new lease on life. They’ve been able to experiment with their release approach, sharing two versions of their travel-inspired Trip Tapes, official collections of remixes, demos, and covers that originally featured as part of the soundtrack to their viral Road Tripping Radio series. They’ve also been able to further promote ecological sustainability, whether through their Milky Change initiative, which plants trees to offset the carbon footprint of touring, or through implementing more sustainable practices into how they source their merch. However, their new sense of freedom is best exemplified by the freewheeling exploratory verve that runs through Living In A Haze.
For some acts, being unleashed artistically might mean endless run-times, dense noise collages, or a more hostile approach to their audience. But Milky Chance’s version of experimentalism is writing the tightest, most groove-forward pop song imaginable — and then going back and distorting each sound into its wildest, most unrecognizable iteration. Take album opener and lead single “Living In A Haze,” an economical haymaker of a track: Its “don’t bore us get to the chorus” structure unfolds with an enigmatic but intuitive logic, going from elegiac triplet guitar figure to a tight, post-Strokes rhythmic feel that provides the ideal musical metaphor to accompany Rehbein’s dreamy delivery. “I wish I was a disco boy,” he sings as the song’s tension finally uncoils with a percussive momentum that beckons listeners to join in. “I should be dancing the pain away.”
Milky Chance have gotten so good at recording breezy off-kilter pop songs that, like two basketball players dramatically upping the stakes in a game of HORSE, they are now challenging themselves to do it in as bizarre a way as possible. On Living In A Haze, it sounds better than anything they’ve ever done.
Operating from an eclectic moodboard of influences — which, in brief, includes: reggae-pop alchemists like Bob Marley, The Police, and Sublime; a vast array of global pop icons including Burna Boy, Stromae, and Rosalía; the emotive deep house of Fred again…; and the moody, neon-streaked Euphoria soundtrack — Milky Chance pack every song on Living In A Haze with delectable noises and the freight train hooks that have become their signature. Afrobeat rhythms power both “Flicker In The Dark” and “Feeling For You” — on the first providing a canvas on which to liberally splatter earthy acoustic textures and a cartoonishly colorful guitar solo, on the second lending a swiveling counterpoint to Rehbein’s narcotized vocal. The impish and irresistible “Colorado” — which makes a reprise here after a 2021 single release — is a labyrinth of twisting guitar riffs, echoing vocal ad-libs, and funhouse synth fanfares that still demands repeat listens. And “Better Off” is 80s pastiche constructed with both reverence and glee, its goth bassline and new wave keyboards showing that Milky Chance learned all the right lessons when they covered The Weeknd and Soft Cell as part of their Trip Tape series.
Recorded at Jazzanova Recording Studios in Berlin with an array of collaborators — including production help from DECCO, Jonas Holle, Tobias Kuhn, Dennis Neuer, and guests including Malian artist Fatoumata Diawara and Canadian singer Charlotte Cardin — Living In A Haze ultimately works because it applies the band’s endless musical curiosity to the propulsive logic of the best club music. “In order to really connect with an audience, particularly in a live setting, music needs a sense of physicality and movement,“ says Rehbein. Milky Chance find unique ways to put this edict into practice, whether it’s the seamless synthesis of Laurel Canyon-steeped folk pop and deep house on “Synchronize” or the refreshingly subtle contours of “Like A Clown’s” poolside filter disco. On “History Of Yesterday,” they marry a UKG shuffle with sunny atmospherics and cascades of reverberating piano that culminate in perhaps the band’s breeziest chorus to date.
However, all the studio ingenuity in the world doesn’t take you very far if it’s used on a lackluster song. Luckily, Living In The Haze provides an abundance of proof that Milky Chance are dedicated to mastering their songcraft. Want a compact pop gem packed with yearning and melodic sophistication? They’ve got “Purple Tiger” and its delightful call-and-response chorus. What about a singalong-igniting, lighters-aloft love song? They’ve got the undeniable strummer “Favorite Song.” What about something ambitious that points to heretofore unseen artistic avenues for the band’s future? There’s the sparse, delicately unfolding album closer “Frequency Of Love,” whose sub-bass textures and auto-tune choirs end things with an emotional flourish and teases the promise of Milky Chance songs to come.
There’s a creative restlessness that permeates Living In A Haze. Milky Chance seem eager to avoid repeating themselves, lest they become stuck in their ways and lose the joyous spark that drew them together as teenaged music students. Over the past decade, that intrepid spirit has served Milky Chance well. Living In A Haze is not the culmination or endpoint of the band’s musical journey, but another chapter in it — one that vibrates with possibility and passion. It’s a thrilling juncture for band and listener alike.