Who is River Tiber?
If you knew of Toronto born-and-based musician River Tiber a.k.a. Tommy Paxton-Beesley before Indigo, it was likely through diligent monitoring of the Toronto hip-hop scene. An early version of River Tiber’s “No Talk” was sampled by Boi-1da and Frank Dukes for the back half of Drake’s “No Tellin’”, a standout tracks on an album full of successes, If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. “No Tellin’”, like most of IYRTITL, is an atmospheric marvel. The front half is sparse, a hypnotic melody and powerful kick drum glued together by Drake’s barks. However, the track elevates itself from the album’s other good-not-great tracks after the beat switches.
The switch begins when a pitched-up sample of the chorus from an under-construction version of “No Talk” is fed into the track as the new backbone. Along with the addition of a prominent bass line, the sample subtly transforms the atmosphere of “No Tellin’”. The song becomes dense with texture, anxiety, and Drake reacts by softening his delivery from a bark to an almost-slurred, resigned delivery.
That’s what Paxton-Beesley does best – he brings the sonic syrup, an invaluable ingredient to many modern hip-hop artists. What I mean by syrup is hard to describe but easy to recognize. The syrup is a thick, unmistakable atmosphere that permeates the high, low, and middle registers of a track – it’s what makes Mike Dean a high-demand producer. The wide range of coverage that constitutes syrup is impossible to produce with a lone vocal track, which is why it is unsurprising to often find Paxton-Beesley on both sides of the production booth.
His chorus on “Tell Me”, the emotional climax of Toronto rapper Jazz Cartier’s Hotel Paranoia, is ethereal, the individual words difficult to decipher through the layers of soft harmonies and pitched-up vocalizing. River Tiber shares production credits.
His single with Pusha T, “Illusions”, is just as densely layered, a sub-bass blanketing no less than four unique vocal tracks. The “Dis Side” half of “Oh My Dis Side”, the sprawling epic that opens Travi$ Scott’s outstanding Rodeo, is the moodier, more introspective half of the track. The beat switch is marked by an uncredited faint and wobbly hum that somehow becomes the foundation of the track. That’s River Tiber.
Shades of blue
Indigo stays consistent with most of Paxton-Beesley’s work, which is to say it’s smoky basement music, a fusion of R&B, hip-hop, and alt rock, and the lyrics serve to establish a sense of mood rather than tell a clear story. Indigo, vaguely about longing, restlessness, dreaming, and being faded, is full of careful detail, bursting with ideas that often last no more than a few seconds and float in and out of the foreground.
Take the grand arpegiatted synthesizer of “Genesis”, the metallic vocal glitching on “Maria”, the indulgent drum fills on “Acid Test”, or the brief glimpse of a trumpet on “Barcelona” as evidence of Paxton-Beesley’s ear for garnish and desire to fill each song to the brim with as many sounds as possible.
“West”, the gem of Indigo, benefits from that ear for detail. The track is built on a looping sample of Paxton-Beesley vocalizing in a way that’s not dissimilar from the way his “No Talk” sample is utilized on Drake’s “No Tellin’”. Faint vocal flourishes make each loop unique to the careful listener, and the vocal layering on the chorus is immaculate. There are only two outside performers on Indigo, and Daniel Caeser’s warmth acts as a much-needed foil to Paxton-Beesley’s chill.
Unfortunately, Paxton-Beesley’s knack for adding coat upon coat of paint is often overshadowed by the oppressive atmosphere of the album, and some of the precious nuance of instrumentation and arrangement is lost. While sonic highlights on tracks like “Motives”, “I’m A Stone”, and “No Talk” (which appears in a finished form here and supplies one of the strongest hooks of the album) can emerge from the background haze of noise from time to time, there just aren’t enough distinct moments to permanently prevent the music from blurring into an extended slurry of coos and moans.
One play through Indigo makes clear why the dark and anxious sensibilities of River Tiber are a hot commodity in the modern realm of syrupy Toronto hip-hop. River Tiber has a signature touch, something many artists struggle to showcase, especially on a debut LP. There is a lot to like here, and you can have totally different experiences with the album depending on whether you choose to pick out the minute detail or through headphones or bathe in the sound through stereo speakers for a lonely smoke session.
Whichever way you slice it, without the gravity of a rap verse or a similarly distinguishing element, it’s easy to float through the album without later being able to recall a standout. That’s a disappointing outcome for an artist who has staked his claim so far on turning good songs into dazzling songs.
Indigo is an abstract painted in watercolor, and the colors are all different shades of dark blue. While all of the shades are beautiful, it’s difficult to appreciate them with little contrast for reference. Paxton-Beesley has established himself with Indigo as a talented producer, vocalist, and tastemaker. For his next act, he’ll need to add a few colors to his palette.
Highlights: “West”, “Motives”, “Maria”