the ann arbor, michigan quartet pity sex is a pop band masquerading as a shoegaze outfit. beneath gloomy exteriors lie adroit guitar melodies and strong vocal hooks, a trait the band first explored on their 2013 debut feast of love and have now set out to perfect on its follow-up, white hot moon. co-vocalists britty drake and brennan greaves again team up for listless explorations of infidelity and longing, toggling between downtrodden narratives and pointed conversations as fuzzed-out guitars buzz in the background.
the album’s twelve tracks rarely waver in tempo, a veritable locomotive engine that propels its train into the realm of 1990s nostalgia with a focus squarely on lyrical development. drake takes more of a center stage than on previous efforts, be it commanding her own lead vocal on early stand-out “burden you” or sparring with greaves in traded stanzas on “september,” but her true apex hits on “plum,” a sparse, heartbreaking reflection on the loss of a parent that eventually gets consumed by a wall of guitars.
greaves’ performance across white hot moon isn’t too shabby either; his mumbled musings are more in-tune and focused than before, and ceding a bit more vocal duty to drake this time around allows for the attentive guitar work sprinkled throughout tunes like “orange and red” and “nothing rips through me.”
white hot moon feels very much like a continuation of its predecessor, and that’s perfectly alright. pity sex excel at honing their craft, and astoundingly resonant pop gems like “pin a star” seem to suggest that downtrodden shoegaze is a comfort zone the band won’t need to rely on for much longer. whether or not they will choose to completely shed their dichotomous aesthetic remains to be seen, but it’s clear that white hot moon is an incredibly focused effort that basks in a soothing analog warmth. soak it up.
at the outset of her career, it appeared as if morly would be content exploring the emotional ceiling of minimal, ambient-indebted dance music. much of her debut ep, in defense of my muse, operates within these confines; only on its finale does she finally allow us to hear her voice. in that context, “drone poem (in defense of my muse)” was an anomaly, but now it feels much more like a prelude.
morly’s sophomore ep, the beautiful something more holy, is an about-face, a decidedly vocal-centric body of work that finds the producer and singer maximizing each facet of her minimalist palette. morly’s vocals inject energy and tension into the brooding, resting heart rate pulse of “if only chords,” while “by the polo pond” is particularly commanding, its rather bleak thematics delivered atop a synthetic brass section for extra emphasis.
but perhaps the most important voices aren’t the ones carrying the main melody. the ep’s title track is largely constructed around a bevy of vocal manipulations, ones that both support morly’s lyrics and juxtapose their smooth contour with a more angular polyrhythm; “plucky” uses similarly-manipulated textures to flesh out underlying harmonies.
something more holy again leaves much to be desired, but only in terms of quantity, certainly not quality. the ep’s physical release is paired with its predecessor; played in succession, the two outline an expansive, virtually limitless foundation for morly to further construct her sonic architecture. we’ll be waiting – albeit a bit impatiently – to hear what she builds next.
bedroom pop has long since reached critical mass. although batches of home-recorded songs no longer automatically feel as reactionary as they did even just a couple of years ago, a handful of the genre’s purveyors consistently offer up invigorating bodies of work. alexei shishkin is one such bastion; after laying down a foundation of listlessness and loneliness on the dog tape last year, shishkin returns with yucca street, an inimitable collection of songs that once again peers into the many facets of a transient lifestyle.
much of yucca street feels like the aural manifestation of things you might think about while staring bleakly out of a passenger train’s window. shishkin wastes little time reaffirming his downtrodden demeanor; the opening bars of the album’s title track (“haven’t made a meaningful connection in years / everyone always disappears or is it me?”) emit in a mumbling, despondent baritone and firmly plateau across the subsequent ten tracks.
yet shishkin is never explicitly woe-is-me in his delivery. he hesitates, routinely second-guesses decisions, and diligently assigns blame to the appropriate party, even if it’s himself. it’s this diplomacy that helps yucca street transcend selfish, sad-sack trappings and navigate towards a realm of true introspection, embodying an almost-universal stream of consciousness that may be convenient to ignore but extremely beneficial to heed.
a handful of lighter moments do occasionally peer out through the gloomy haze that pervades yucca street. shishkin accomplishes this most notably through timbral juxtapositions, with pristine keyboard melodies jumping out of the buzzsaw foundations on tracks like “confidence” and “town,” but there’s also a nonchalant affect that creeps through his lyrics, as if his woes are in transit and haven’t yet reached their final destination.
on “carpal,” a song that has no business being as inherently catchy as it is, shishkin states his central thesis: “that’s fine with me.” those four words encompass every shoulder shrug, every acceptance of a less-than-favorable situation detailed on yucca street. he’s still able to carve transcontinental locations into poignant reflections – and “stuck” exhibits a tentative shishkin at his most vulnerable – but yucca street largely resonates as a handbook for dealing with transitions, a series of quick, calming anecdotes to help keep a level head in times of constant reflection.
the collaboration between thomas mullarney iii and jacob gossett has proved fruitful; as beacon, the brooklyn duo has slowly transformed an art institute friendship into a tour de force of murky, nocturnal soundscapes laced with seductive vocals and fastidious drum beats. on escapements, beacon’s second full-length, mullarney and gossett double down on the nuances of their compositional integrity to turn in a final product packed with a strong awareness of form, deeply-buried grooves, and subtle about-faces.
escapements are the mechanisms inside clocks tasked with regulating time; while immediately analogous to the metronomic pulse of tracks like “preserve” and “better or worse,” the term refers more to the duo’s exploration of the finite, the inevitability of decay. the opening line of “running out” (“what if my luck run out / in these games we play”) and the abrupt shifts in dynamics and tone on tracks like “backbone” and “still” find beacon harnessing this relative brevity, using it both to their immediate advantage and as a thematic tool for ambiguous introspection.
beacon’s insatiable appetite for bending new textures and structures to fit their needs resonates so deeply across escapements. brooding, r&b-influenced palettes may be the duo’s bread and butter, but it routinely transcends a two-dimensional plane with purposeful countermelodies (“preserve,” “backbone”) and an adroit use of polyrhythm (“running out,” “l1”). when an a-b structure threatens to become mundane, mullarney and gossett return to pop conventions or flirt with a theme and variation. when an electronic timbre has become all but uniform, they infuse the soundscape with guitars (“escapements,” “still”) or veer off into the uncharted church organ territories of “you’re wandering.”
escapements is a soundtrack for the nights you spend in the company of another. its lurking sub-bass throbs like a second heartbeat, working in tandem with percussion to propel the perpetual union of gossett’s aqueous arpeggios and mullarney’s stratospheric sighs. tycho drummer rory o’connor drops by to add an organic touch to a handful of tracks, augmenting the duo’s intimacy while taking care to never overstep any boundaries. it’s all these subtle flourishes and enhancements together that make beacon’s work so invigorating, from the sultry, stuttering hook on “im u” through to the infectious melody that bounces across “preserve.” escapements is an album near impossible to put down; go pick it up.
scott reitherman’s self-titled debut as pillar point in early 2014 read as a successful reinvention. a dark undercurrent coursed through equally-murky pop constructs, molding an ominous presence that all but dared listeners to either furiously dance or studiously absorb its lyrical content; multi-tasking was not a feasible option. but it turns out that pillar point was just the tip of that particular iceberg. on his sophomore follow-up, marble mouth, reitherman plunges into the depths of his aesthetic and emerges with a refocused and incredibly urgent end result.
disconnected relationships are still very much a central tenet of reitherman’s lyrics, but he’s more direct about these issues on marble mouth; the very title of “part time love” is a concession of the limitations geographical distance can put on even a committed romance, while “dove” fleshes out the subsequent strain and exhaustion from both parties. these melancholic expressions soak into most of the album, though reitherman allows himself moments of catharsis on the sprightly penultimate cut “underground,” re-routing emotional weight to third-person narratives before letting loose with the resounding hook of “give me what you need / i’ve been working overtime.”
if pillar point was a pop album that occasionally ceded to reitherman’s dance-floor urges, marble mouth feels like the opposite. pop constructs exist insofar as most songs have a discernible verse-chorus structure, but they’re routinely padded with firm indulgences into experimental textures and static harmonies. tracks like “black fly on a white wall” and “lafayette” funnel observations on new surroundings through robotic vocal deliveries and punishing ostinato bass grooves before wandering off into uncharted musical territories, while “gloomsday” is a dreary homecoming built around radio samples and a frenetic amalgamation of agitated synth motifs and steadfast percussion.
outside production from of montreal’s kevin barnes and percussion contributions from members of washed out and kishi bashi help to keep marble mouth from becoming an insular extension of its predecessor, but reitherman of course deserves the lion’s share of credit. if there’s any cop-out hedonism on this album, it’s buried miles-deep beneath extensive self-examination and an adventurous, eclectic sonic palette.
even the most accessible songs benefit from this meticulous writing process; “dove” rests its laurels on the polyrhythm interplay between strings and a four-on-the-floor beat while “playtime,” the album’s filthiest cut, uses its titular sample to foreshadow both the track’s eerie descending vocal melodies and its irresistible syncopations.
still, the most impressionable aspect of marble mouth is arguably its biggest outlier. after an exhausting half-hour dance odyssey, reitherman slows the tempo and eliminates much of the accumulated textures for “dance like you wanna die,” a poignant finale for lilting hearts that wonders “is there a love song that cares / whose mind she’s on?” this sudden juxtaposition is jarring, but it’s an integral piece in supporting the argument that scott reitherman has crafted the most earnest, and honest, album of his career.
the framework of daughter has firmly been in place since its inception nearly five years ago: desolate soundscapes paired with lyrical turns that frequently transcend the confessional. across a handful of early demos and a pair of eps in 2011 – his young heart and the wild youth – elena tonra crafted a persona as intimate as it is accessible, gradually absorbing the timbres and talents of igor haefeli and remi aguilella along the way. after fully realizing the potential of that structure on 2013’s affecting full-length debut if you leave, daughter decamped to write not to disappear, a gorgeous follow-up that grapples with the ever-evolving turmoils of romance and isolation.
tonra has long been capable of penning devastating lyrics yet delivering them with such disarming consonance; this trait grows exponentially across not to disappear. the clear frontrunner is “doing the right thing,” a character study of the gradual deterioration due to alzheimer’s – one that achieves peak poignancy through little more than shifting verb tenses – but residual effects are felt throughout the album.
“mothers,” a delicate slow-burning interlude, is a masterclass in conveying the physical pain that can result from unrequited love, and tonra notably channels that pain into vehemence on much of the album’s back half. self-deprecation morphs into spite towards an absent and inattentive partner (“just a shadowy figure with a blank face / kicking me out of his place”) on “alone/with you,” a sentiment that tonra doubles down on just two songs later, stating “i don’t want to belong / to you, to anyone” with newfound conviction.
impeccable lyricism is arguably the most integral cog in daughter’s machine, but the trio makes strides in combatting the musical homogeneity that can accompany such a niche thematic area. both haefeli and aguilella figure more prominently into each song’s direction; aguilella especially, as percussion propels tracks like “fossa” and “no care” into previously uncharted territories. daughter also juxtaposes the convenient ambience that can quickly envelop sadness with tracks that flat-out groove (see: “how” and “to belong”) while “no care” is the closest analog to punk rock that this outfit has ever – and most likely will ever – pull off.
not to disappear reads as a composite sketch for an entire spectrum of daughter fans. those seeking sparse moments of introspection will find solace in “made of stone” and “numbers,” while tracks like “how” and “fossa” will sate the appetites of others yearning to hear the band explore new sonic territories. it’s a highly impressionable album at first glance, and the weight of its wintery despondency gradually seeps into your core with each subsequent listen.
an album this intimate needs only a few choice words of context.
port st. willow will forever occupy an important plot point on my musical development chart. nick principe’s first full-length under said moniker, holiday, was the first album i discovered via twitter recommendation, thanks to a dutiful tweet from the antlers, and it was one i physically rediscovered eighteen months later in a bin at my local record store on the cusp of a particularly brutal midwestern winter.
i marveled at the cohesion of holiday, at principe’s mournful falsetto, at how percussion could be titanic yet somehow not impede the development of a beautiful soundscape. it’s also one of the few albums i own that actually irritates me, but only because i have to get up and flip the record so many times instead of being able to listen to it uninterrupted.
syncope follows the basic formula of its predecessor closely: it’s an album best-digested in a single session, and principe continues to favorably manipulate what should be a dichotomous relationship between thundering rhythms and tender melodies. yet syncope feels strikingly more improvisatory than holiday; discernible songs eventually materialize, but they’re routinely padded by and birthed from extended passages of patient ambience.
moments of wandering and moments of clarity are both executed beautifully. lead single “ordinary pleasure” dissolves into an aqueous solution aptly titled “an ocean we both know,” which in turn gradually morphs into “atlas.” principe’s meticulous attention to the growth and detail of his ambient interludes is commendable, and he reaps the benefits of his work on “motion,” the pulsating centerpiece of syncope replete with a whistled motif that may be the closest thing to a hook that principe has ever offered.
the explicit momentum of “motion” quickly recedes back into the guarded textures from which it originated, setting the stage for the album’s second half. the b-side of syncope feels even more exposed and vulnerable than its counterpart; acoustic piano peeks through the textures of “orbit back, my garden home” for a brief but prominent feature, its sparseness and preciseness juxtaposing the white noise that eventually resorbs it, while the discernible words amidst principe’s fluid cooing on closing number “opal” are decidedly lonely, a longing gaze out of a window.
syncope has had a relatively quiet rollout, but it’s already proving to be an integral component in the port st. willow canon. navigate away from the dimestore and immerse yourself in this beautiful piece of art.
it didn’t take long for foxing to stand apart from their peers. the st. louis quintet’s debut album the albatross meted out blasts of post-hardcore agitation that were occasionally quelled by beautiful instrumental passages, and these arrangements progressed with such fluidity that it was hard not to admire this young band’s intimate capacity to tug at heartstrings on a multitude of levels.
a reissue of the album last year by triple crown records helped propel foxing to even more widespread acclaim; they spent the twilight of 2014 touring with brand new and modern baseball before beginning to flesh out ideas for their sophomore effort. further writing sessions in rural vermont earlier this year yielded the songs that would eventually populate dealer, an incredible, deeply personal follow-up that steadfastly holds court in the bowels of self-reflection.
while the albatross was firmly rooted in release, dealer finds solace in tension – and retention. the religious imagery that defines lead single “the magdalene” is vivid in description and stark in consequence, its biblical undertones permeating in quick succession through the final third of the album. this appropriately culminates with finale “three on a match,” a poignant nod to an old wartime superstition compounded by a heartbreaking rejection of repentance.
vocalist conor murphy and bassist josh coll share songwriting duties, and this fruitful partnership has pushed foxing into a new lyrical category on dealer. the poetry is dense and less direct, but it notably doesn’t force itself into the spotlight; murphy’s falsetto (more confident and technically capable than on the albatross) smears certain words into a song’s canvas (see especially: “eiffel”) while enunciating others for maximum effect, and he’ll often leave the conversation altogether to give his bandmates ample time to musically react to the emotions he’s explored.
the centerpiece – and masterpiece – of dealer is “indica,” an intensely somber account penned by coll riddled with regret and remorse. its lyrics leave behind much of the duo’s detailed imagery in favor of a bleak reality. the central couplet “and if so, do i haunt their parents’ dreams? / and in so, am i summarized by sounds of young lung screams” weighs heavily on the album and helps advance the elegy for tragic civilian casualties in afghanistan, but “indica” is also a elegy for a part of coll himself, who concedes that his post-traumatic stress may be the only consolation for the parents of dead children as a sparse funeral march plays in the background.
the noticeably darker subject matter is underscored by vast, often desolate soundscapes. the members of foxing haven’t deviated far from their standard palette: guitar, bass, and drums are still augmented by murphy’s trumpet and piano contributions, and fleshed-out orchestral arrangements play a significant role in the overall tone of dealer, but many timbral roles have shifted. guitarists ricky sampson and eric hudson largely leave harmony behind to explore the stratosphere, relegating chordal support to piano and strings or preferring to outline the progressions via arpeggio. the duo also spend more time crafting atmospheric pads that prop up secondary melodic instruments, such as the trumpet-saxophone duet on “laundered” and the eerie reed organ tones that course through “indica” and “redwoods.”
this rearrangement of sonic architecture allows foxing to convincingly clear the ceiling of lyrically-driven music and venture far into the realm of extended instrumentals. both “winding cloth” and “coda” function not as mere interludes but as direct, fully-developed reactions to their antecedents. the former molds a fleeting piano motif at the end of “indica” into a sprawling cinematic endeavor that’s every bit as devastating as its predecessor’s poetry, while the latter’s barren landscape quickly dampens the catharsis of “eiffel,” returning dealer to a more downtrodden tone for its true finale.
dealer resonates deeply. a magnum opus of this caliber, with no discernible weak points, is rarely achieved by a band, let alone this early in their career. foxing’s bluntly finite, unofficial motto means they could hang it up at any moment; it would be a shame if dealer winds up being their swan song, but goddamn, what a legacy they’ll leave behind.
devon welsh directly dictated the ethos of majical cloudz when he intoned “listen to this song / i want you to know it’s how i feel” to open their 2013 standalone cut “savage.” the track didn’t make it onto the duo’s breakthrough album from that same year, impersonator, but “savage” mirrored the record’s blunt, emotive, and minimalist tendencies so well that it felt like a proper extension.
as majical cloudz has continuously proved to be one of those acts that knowingly transcends the confines of writing music as a band to explore the broader realm of performance art, it stood to reason that welsh and collaborator matthew otto would compose something entirely different in the wake of impersonator. but as are you alone? illustrates, the duo chose instead to explore the parameters and outer limits of their carefully-crafted sonic world, at times challenging perceptions while at others firmly holding up pillars.
welsh was undoubtedly the most enduring facet of impersonator, from his intense lyrical delivery to the wide-ranging contents of those lyrics, and the rich baritone he employed ensured that his vocals would cut through, enriching otto’s sparse, vaporous production. the opposite holds true on are you alone? as the subject matter settles into proclamations of intense feeling and more positive explorations of love and love lost, welsh slips into a higher register, one that’s more ambitious yet at times can truly hinder a song’s development.
we’re forced to reckon with this shift almost immediately. the climax of welsh’s vocal line on “control” swells through the telling phrase “will you let me change? / i want to but / i think you want me the same,” one that speaks immediately to the song’s subject but also serves as an analogue to the new boundaries majical cloudz explores. those changes are sometimes hard to navigate; both the album’s title track and its follow-up “so blue” are vocally unsteady, perhaps purposefully so, but otto’s production compensates time and again. his arrangements are explorative, more orchestral (see the aforementioned “so blue” and opener “disappeared”), and altogether more aware of the space they occupy, working laterally rather than vertically to achieve sonic nuances. it’s also worth mentioning that otto’s overall timbre of choice eventually cedes to welsh’s new vocal register; “silver car crash” and “if you’re lonely” are pillars of the album’s back half and are propped up by warbling organs and nasal synth leads, respectively.
much of are you alone? is not instantly memorable. tracks bleed together, either due to thematics or the consistent organ as otto’s centerpiece, in an almost antithetical fashion to the quotable maudlin hooks sprinkled throughout impersonator. welsh’s lyrical bright spots do persevere, however; it just requires a bit closer attention. the chilly atmosphere of “change” is augmented by profound statements like “the one you are today / is you until you rot” while “if you’re lonely” reads as one giant mea culpa for welsh’s previous feelings of hopelessness before evolving into a self-help testimonial for other lonely listeners, and the overall intensity of crown-jewel “downtown” is enough to make anyone momentarily forget the album’s shortcomings.
from a vocal and melodic standpoint, are you alone? is largely a misstep. welsh’s voice wavers so much at times that it bypasses the crutch of hesitant vulnerability and moves squarely into the realm of flat and out of tune, while there’s also a clear absence of the simple melodic genius and resonance that dotted impersonator. but to simply write off the album as mediocre does a disservice to otto’s production and arrangements, a vast and intricate soundscape which could – and should – be scoring films, and ignores welsh’s penchant for incredibly direct lyrics that can become intensely personal at any given moment. it’s an uneven overall performance, sure, but are you alone? is also an optimistic, challenging, and fascinating snapshot of the relationship between two highly gifted songwriters. save for a blustery fall afternoon.
break-up albums are a dime a dozen; there’s no skirting around that fact. the bevy of emotions available for dissection are second only to perhaps the subject of death, but the prospect of lost love can at least offer some more surface-level optimism. rarer is the good break-up album; wallowing in self-pity tastes stale very quickly, and male artists have the capacity to rely on extended misogynistic passages that all but incriminate them in the relationship’s demise. throughout chad valley’s gorgeous new album entirely new blue, hugo manuel is on the outside smartly looking in at lost romance, offering up a mixture of soft apologies, poignant reflections, and firm resolutions.
manuel meets this complex spectrum of emotions head-on almost immediately with “true.” the second cut on the album is its first cohesive thought and is predicated on the returning phrase “my mind is all but made up,” the key portion being the word “all.” manuel shifts from pleas for forgiveness to a proclamation of unclouded vision throughout the song; by the end of “true,” his principle statement is adamant.
entirely new blue should also be commended on the quality and diversity of its production, which runs the gamut from spectacularly downtrodden to joyously buoyant, not necessarily in tandem with its lyrical counterpart. the sputtering backbeat and intermittent synth stabs throughout “arms away” seemingly ready the track for the dance floor, though it – along with fellow earworm “not that man” – feature testaments of self-examination that bely their major-key exteriors. a more predictable alignment occurs on ballad centerpiece “seventeen,” though through the outward gloom emerges a rather surprising and encouraging phrase: “i’m much happier than you think.”
chad valley has always felt like a detail-oriented project, and entirely new blue is no exception. the vocal layering gets more and more impressive with every listen, be it manuel harmonizing with himself over the same lyrical material, slowly bringing simultaneous and contrasting thoughts into the foreground of the mix, or dueting with someone else entirely on “labasa” and “good brains.” the album’s concise nature has already been touched on, but this attribute extends down to the tracks themselves; even longer cuts like “seventeen” and “labasa” retain freshness with sudden introductions of pulse and subtle shifts in timbre.
by the time album closer “alisa” hits, entirely new blue seems like it should have traversed the waters of a break up and emerged on the other shore victorious; instead, “alisa” is manuel’s most impassioned, direct plea yet, its vulnerability contrasting the track’s surging, anthemic qualities. and maybe that’s the whole point; maybe entirely new blue is a stark reminder of the harshness and non-linear progression of reality, but the beauty of chad valley is manuel’s ability to saturate these faults in warm, soothing polychrome. entirely new blue is entirely therapeutic. listen.