Rodrick Cliche and Nivlac Retxab (aka Calvin Baxter) are both embodiments of the phrase “if you know, you know.” The former is a lauded keyboardist and local bandleader who toured with acclaimed soul artist D’Angelo and the Vanguard, while the latter is the touring drummer for one of the city’s most beloved groups: Gullah band Ranky Tanky.
But, in spite of their noted proficiency and well-travelled musical backgrounds, neither artist has put themselves on the forefront.
Perhaps that’s why Syne, the new collaborative project between Cliche and Retxab, is such an intriguing project.
“A lot of times, him and I are in the background,” Retxab notes. “We’re usually doing stuff for other people. For us to come together, and for us to be the show, it’s just going to be different, especially for me. I think I’m a shy person.”
Retxab and Cliche admit that they are pretty introverted, but they have weaponized that character trait on their self-titled debut LP, which drops on Aug. 2, for a series of electronic R&B art songs that feel as personal as they do isolated.
“We’ve been blessed to tour with artists and things like that, but there’s something special between him and I, and we wanted to try to raise the level of excellence and bring art back, instead of making hits,” Cliche states about Syne.
The LP’s high-concept design is felt in every song. The majority of the album runs chorus-free, centering its energy on moving forward to something new.
“She Go” features several movements that revolve around similar musical themes, albeit with altering textures, signifying a change in personality as the song progresses.
Questions are sung in different voices. “Where are you,” a woman sings in the song’s sparse middle section. The lyric shifts to “Where’d she go/ that’s all I want to know,” when Nivlac begins singing in an electric voice.
Retxab’s favorite track, “Sadder Days,” is an eclectic soul song that finds three unique sections during its four-and-a-half minute runtime. Each is entirely distinct, usually threaded together by the keyboard, but it’s hard to imagine one part without the others.
Cliche and Retxab have a strong and warm friendship, one that’s apparent from the way they talk about their working history that dates back to Retxab’s first music project out of high school.
“We did one song on there called ‘Purple,'” Cliche recalls. “To date, it’s one of the flyest things I’ve ever done.”
Their bond directly altered Syne several times during the recording process. Cliche’s original tune, “I’m Taken,” was a track that he had worked on for roughly half a decade.
“I wrote that song six or seven years ago and it always sucked, to me,” the keyboardist says.
“He didn’t want to put it on the album,” Retxab laughs. “I said, ‘let me produce it.'” And, while Cliche is still aloof about the song, his bandmate says that “it made the album.”
Objectively speaking, “I’m Taken” is a highlight for the LP. Awash with dark synths, the song removes the beat traditionally found in an R&B track, leading to a new sense of desperation. It builds to a crash of drums, just for a few measures, before it goes back to the isolated tone from before. The song doesn’t pounce on the tension it creates, and it’s better for it.
The closest the album gets to a pop hit is the first half of “AGAIN.” A groovy beat and soft bass-synth drive the song. Right when the chorus would begin in a more radio-friendly track, a sample is played.
“My heart breaks open and that’s a really good thing because when it’s open, I can look deeper inside,” the woman on the sample states.
By the time “Julie,” the album’s swan song, is over, Syne shows itself to be a chameleon. The duo focuses less on expectations and conventional structure because they’re too busy looking at the next movement.
The majority of the songwriting credit goes to Retxab, who had “90 percent” of the album complete by the time Cliche got involved, according to the keyboardist.
“It was done before I came into the picture and I was so upset and jealous that I didn’t create it myself,” he adds. “I had to get on and he allowed it to happen.”
But, Retxab insists that Cliche was integral to the final product. “I would have done the album by myself, but it wouldn’t have been as good,” Retxab says.
Both artists have been heavily involved in watershed moments for the Charleston music scene. In 2018, Retxab burned down the Cistern stage in a celebratory Spoleto show with Ranky Tanky, and Cliche, founder of the Four20s, led Benny Starr’s backing band during the landmark live recording of A Water Album.
When asked what footprint those moments left on Syne, Cliche offered one connection that links all three projects.
“I think what marries this to a Ranky Tanky or a Benny Starr and the Four20s is that we’re really concerned about home,” Cliche explains. “And in ways, Ranky Tanky has a plight that we’re a part of, but we don’t spearhead the idea.”
“There’s an intent and an importance that needs to be talked about, but this is about art and having some fun,” he adds. “We’re trying to bring the party vibe back, trying to bring great songwriting back.”
Given how well connected the duo is, an album with no big-name features was clearly intentional. Cliche says that they didn’t feel the need to bring anyone else on because there will be other opportunities on the next release.
“As we do this, we’re hoping that it kind of ignites some very talented people in the city,” he says.