Naomi Saalfield can hit seven notes in a second that you didn’t even know existed. Better known by her stage name Nai Palm, the lead singer of Australian jazz/funk/future-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote has a line tattooed from the corner of her mouth to her chin where her pet crow scratched her as a child. In both her appearance and her musicality, she seems to be simultaneously utterly at one with nature, and from another world altogether.
Hiatus Kaiyote have been, well, on hiatus. After touring extensively with their first two albums – 2012’s Tawk Tomahawk and 2015’s Grammy-nominated Choose Your Weapon – the band took a break in 2017. And then, just as their new album was starting to take shape, Palm was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though they produce relatively obscure, genre-rejecting music (the band call it “wondercore”), Hiatus Kaiyote have developed a large global following. Fans were devastated when Palm, then 28, announced her diagnosis in late 2018. She is now post-surgery and in remission, and the release of Mood Valiant on 25 June, after six years of no new music (save for a solo EP by Palm), is a relief on more than one level.
Hiatus Kaiyote make the sort of complex music that involuntarily causes your face to screw up with pleasure and pain. It feels dense and saturated, heavy with dissonance and unthinkably intricate harmonies. Where the tune is soulful and cogent – on “Sparkle Tape Break Up”, the melody almost slips into the meandering lines of Jeff Buckley – the rhythms are perfectly impenetrable. Time is elastic on Mood Valiant: on “Slip into Something Soft”, the first proper track after an introduction, it’s impossible to find the beat among the wash of synth, Palm’s soprano and a super-low bass – but you trust that it must be there somewhere. When it does appear, such as in the driving groove of “All the Words We Don’t Say”, it just as easily falls out again, dropping into a tempo that feels, to the normal human ear, completely unrelated.
All this rhythmic sorcery could make for uncomfortable listening, but, as on Hiatus Kaiyote’s previous albums, Mood Valiant creates a cocooning effect with layers of sound effects, instruments and harmonies, like a sort of audio pillow-fort. The intro track, “Flight of the Tiger Lily”, eases us in with strings and half-audible, distorted vocal samples; throughout the album, new sounds appear. There’s a wonky electro chorus and a faint fuzzing throughout “Chivalry is Not Dead”. “Get Sun” ultimately descends into calming rainforest sounds – the sense of being underwater, or under a thick canopy, persists throughout the album. The Brazilian soul veteran Arthur Verocai features on this track, which is undeniably the stand-out, bringing a Bossa groove and sunny brass. The effect is symphonic, almost recalling Gershwin or Bernstein.
I know what you’re thinking and, yes, there is a clear trippiness to Mood Valiant. The surreal blends dizzyingly with the real: on “Chivalry is Not Dead”, Palm imagines that she is a “a leopard slug”, “a seahorse”, “a hummingbird”; the refrain takes us somewhere even more minuscule, as she sings “close to your molecules”, again and again (recalling “Borderline with my Atoms”, a track from Choose Your Weapon). On “Red Room”, a quieter soul track more akin to the recent wave of accessible, jazzy R&B than nerdy funk, she sings about the sunset in her bedroom: “It feels like I’m inside a flower/It feels like I’m inside my eyelids.”
Among this psychedelic world there are moments of pristine clarity and beauty: the brass of “Get Sun”, belting vocal harmonies in “All the Words We Don’t Say”, the soulful piano ballad at the end of the album, “Stone or Lavender”: “Please believe me when I say/Someday it’ll be OK.” Hiatus Kaiyote’s music is complex and challenging. But their warmth and vibrancy is what comes through: Mood Valiant is musical sunshine.