Album Review: Moaning, Uneasy Laughter

In their sophomore album Uneasy Laughter, Moaning have manipulated their exhilarating brand of post-punk to appear akin to gossamer. Their skilled interplay of synth and industrial guitar as well as their deeply personal lyricism results in something representative of the countless other vital emotions underneath the vast umbrella of vulnerability, other than anger. And as I repeatedly listen to the L.A. trio’s absolutely incredible new release within the seemingly never-ending haze of quarantine, I realize that they’ve managed to achieve something rare and wildly beautiful, something that I feel we are all very much going through at this time: delicately contained catharsis. 

Uneasy Laughter is the perfect follow-up to Moaning’s stellar self-titled debut, which was dense and at times impenetrable in both its instrumentals and snarling, abrasive vocals; the debut was a sweltering room, all the windows blacked out and painted shut, the doors locked and the key buried outside in the dirt, a diatribe on the grievances of everyday life. Their sophomore release, on the other hand, focuses more on one’s internal psyche, letting in some semblance of light via the conscious focus on synth, almost as if deliberate holes have been punched through the wall of sound they’ve built up over the past decade during the days where guitarist/vocalist Sean Solomon, keyboardist/bassist Pascal Stevenson, and drummer Andrew MacKelvie were fully immersed in the Los Angeles DIY scene. 

Solomon directs a lot of the narratives to men in particular, to explain that having delicate emotion is not equal to emasculation or lack of worth – he explained that, although things are slowly improving in terms of human empathy, unfortunately in our society men are still conditioned “not to be vulnerable or admit they’re wrong,” and that he wished to turn this on its head, wanting to talk openly about the mistakes he’s made over the years. Solomon, who also celebrated a year of sobriety during the recording sessions of Uneasy Laughter, additionally urges people to not abuse dangerous and/or illegal substances as a coping mechanism for anxiety and/or depression, stressing that “I don’t want to be the person who influences young people to go get high and become cliche tragic artists. What I’d rather convey to people is that they’re not alone in what they think and how they feel.” Many have reached out to the band to convey their appreciation, to share their own starts to sobriety, to express relief that they’re not alone – something which Solomon considers more of a win than anything else. 

In this vein, I highly recommend that, at least once, you listen to Uneasy Laughter while reading the lyrics simultaneously, for they show Moaning’s ultimate empathy for the intricacies of human emotion. From the thunderous rage of “Ego” where Solomon condemns emotional narcissism to the gauzy, hypnagogic “Say Something” stressing the importance of mental health, each track feels important, necessary, worthy of deeper analysis. Even the tracks more explicitly about love and relationships – the visceral “Fall In Love” and the stunning “Stranger,” brilliantly offsetting the industrial, metallic synth and gritty, resilient guitars, are written thoughtfully and delicately, narratives that remain in your mind due to their honesty.

To me, Uneasy Laughter is beautifully and vividly reminiscent of a wound nanoseconds after it materializes on flesh, a raw, incredibly sensitive space forever oscillating between the poles of fresh pain and future acceptance, perpetually within those vulnerable, breathless moments before blood rises up to the surface and pools it red. Though it is perhaps painful to realize for some, I believe it is the realization of our own beautiful vulnerabilities and our capacity for empathy that will always save us in the end, no matter how far in the darkness we think we are. And though he said this in regards to poetry, I’d like to end with a Wallace Stevens quote that I kept coming back to while listening to Moaning’s incredible music, that sometimes, creating art “is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without.” 

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photo by Michael Schmelling

Augustine – “Picking Up Speed”

I throw around the word “otherworldly” a lot in regards to music, but I assure you that Swedish artist Augustine is one that truly deserves the description. His signature synth is akin to soft sheets of silk, subtle, graceful, and luxurious; his stunningly unique, sharp falsetto vocals, when placed adjacent to his thoughtful narratives, feel delicately visceral, treating supposedly everyday moments of reality with a fantastical sense of wonder and reverence. His latest single “Picking Up Speed,” released today,  is another such track, which he explained is about the fear of losing someone you’re falling in love with: 

“It’s about building this little universe with someone. Just living in your bubble together and feeling that everyone on the outside sucks. But regardless of how good it is, you fear that it could break at any moment. The more you gain, the more you may lose. Picking up speed together with someone who means the world to you can be the scariest thing.” 

Though the synth is bright, the lyrics show him writhing in self-doubt, torturing himself by overthinking, creating problems where perhaps, there are none (and it’s been eating my heart out/ and now it’s gone to my head/ that we have peaked for some months now / and this is all gonna end). He’s self-conscious, explaining that “I worry about how fast I’ll wear you down,” that he’s intimidated (yeah everybody here is just so weird/ but you’re not at all); he wants to impress her friends, to make her “proud” of him so that he has peace of mind that she won’t end things. The synth, though still bright in these vulnerable sections, increasingly has an aura of panic and anxiety, but, most of all, a hopeful, emphatic desperation that is frighteningly easy to relate with if you’ve ever been a twenty-something in love. 

Despite the unpredictability of the future, however, Augustine begins and ends the track with the same static, wholesome image of putting on a shirt she picked out for him, calling her “honey love” not as a hollow term of endearment, but as a genuine promise of perpetual infatuation.

 

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Perlee – “Charlie’s Song”

Deep within the hazy, amber-tinged melodies of “Charlie’s Song,” somewhere among the infatuation and perpetual yearning, also exists an aura of slow blossoming resilience. Perhaps this resilience came easy along with Saramai Leech and Cormac O’ Keeffe’s transition from Ireland to Berlin over the winter before working on the majority of Slow Creature, their stunning debut EP as Perlee – the emotions of leaving one’s home for somewhere unfamiliar no doubt gave rise to the substantial heaviness felt within these songs. Slow Creature is filled with tracks that “dig deep into the reality of our ever-present emotional lives,” and Perlee insists that lost love is a main part of this reality; something painful, but something that will eventually give rise to self-containment. “Charlie’s Song” is one such portrayal – visually, the guitar and layered vocals evoke delicate dust particles caught in the crossfire of light piercing through a smudged window, floating and swirling with an almost enviable nonchalance as the narrative takes us over sunsets and oceans, through valleys and breezes. 

O’Keeffe’s flinty, beautifully strained vocals throughout the verses soon melt into Leech’s within the chorus, their voices matching the delicacy of those aforementioned dust particles as they swirl and dance – they tell the listener of a painful longing that transcends time and space, explaining “you’re in my mind/ at the break of day/ in the dead of night/ you’re in my mind/ when I’m out in front/ when I fall behind.” There’s a simplicity to these lines that is blissfully sincere, a deliberate promise of love and adoration even when there’s miles of earth separating you from the one you want. 

Slow Creature is out now. 

 

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Motorama – “The New Era”

Post-punk feels incredibly transcendental at times, and Motorama is no exception. There’s something about the melding of lo-fi instrumentals and hazy, distant vocals that feel like the components necessary to dissociate for a moment into some far off existence, the landscape somehow soft and velvety despite the grit and sweat that goes into its creation. Motorama’s Poverty, my favorite from their respective discography, is a perfect example of this – sharp, crystal-like guitar and gruff narratives, somehow both lethargic and passionate simultaneously. 

But it wasn’t until this week, when Motorama released “The New Era” – their first new single since their 2018 album Many Nights – that I wanted to look more into post-punk from Russia, where Motorama is based. An interview with lead singer and guitarist Vladislav Parshin led me to discover a few of their influences from the late ‘80’s – Kofe’s “Set to Zero” is well worth your time, and Kino is a fascinating experience overall. Considering traditional Russian folk songs, which center on metaphysical stories of “faith and death,” post-punk seems to be a fitting genre to bring these stories into the 21st century.

The texture within “The New Era” mirrors the interplay between light and dark, this aforementioned “faith and death,” as it were – the swift transition from Parshin’s gravely drawl to the wavering falsetto, the brooding guitar that brightens in waves, the adherence to both “everywhere” and nowhere” in the lyrics. The chorus, perhaps most grim of all on paper, feels oddly hopeful when expressed through Parshin’s bright vocals. But take this interpretation with a grain of salt. Motorama have simply stated that “our band is 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s Soviet rock and new wave music, but in English,” which is perhaps all you’ll get out of them – they’re quite terse in interviews, admittedly, mentioning that they hate talking about their lyrics and are only inspired by the weather in Rostov-on-Don, but perhaps letting the music speak for itself is best. 

Plus, they said that Perfume Genius’s “Hood” was the best song of 2012, so I really don’t have any more questions for them.

 

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The Buttertones – “Jazzhound”

Since the release of their self-titled debut EP six years ago, the endless charm of The Buttertones has come from the fact that despite the slight tinge of humor within their music, they always seem to be deliberately tugging at and pulling something unquestionably visceral from the depths of their souls, something jagged, twitching, and smoldering – frontman Richard Araiza’s vocals can switch effortlessly from a lovesick croon to an explosive snarl at the blink of an eye, while the instrumentals from drummer/multi-instrumentalist Modesto ‘Cobi’ Cobiån, saxophonist and keyboardist London Guzman, and bassist Sean Redman combine brilliantly, resulting in something not unlike the unpredictable, jazz-inspired soundtrack to a cinematic noir thriller. 

Speaking of jazz, The Buttertones are getting ready to release Jazzhound, their fourth full length album as well as the highly anticipated follow up to 2018’s brilliant Midnight in a Moonless Dream. Along with the news earlier this month, they also shared the stellar title track, a fervid, volatile track delightfully reminiscent of  ‘70’s post-punk, hinting at something even heavier and more experimental for the upcoming album. Araiza’s lo-fi warble slithers between exhilaratingly saw-edged instrumentals that seem to have a self-sustaining vitality all their own – the guitars blind and blare, the drums shoot in like calculated flashes of serrated lightning, inspired by proto-punk drum machines of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. It’s manic, ironically trance-like, somehow perfectly controlled at the same time – altogether strangely addictive in its refined embrace of pure chaos. The Buttertones told MAGNET:

“It was obvious to us from the moment the song ‘Jazzhound’ was conceived that it would be the title of the album. The cadence and temperament of the music provided a pillar for us as musicians to reflect upon and gave us a new perspective on what a Buttertones song is capable of being.”

Jazzhound is out April 10.

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Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – “Temple”

Earlier this week, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down announced their upcoming fifth album Temple. Along with the news came the first single and  title track, an absolutely beautiful, incredibly powerful narrative written from the perspective of Thao Nguyen’s mother, a refugee from Vietnam who fled the country just days before the fall of Saigon in the mid ‘70’s. Nguyen explained the track on Oxfam:

“Both my parents and much of my family are refugees of war. I have at times subscribed to the exclusive narrative of refugee sacrifice, abject loss and grief; those are there too, but they are not the only things. Some of the lightest people I know are my family members who have survived war and imprisonment. They astound me and really help me get over myself. I wrote this song in my mom’s voice, celebrating her life before, during, and after war, and—most importantly—blessing my pursuit of my own happiness and freedom in this life that is a gift.”

The lyrics that open the track, along with the rest of the hauntingly poetic narrative, are striking, the specific details memorable well after the song’s end; Ngyuen, in the chorus, explains in her mother’s voice that “I lost my city in the light of day/ Thick smoke/ Helicopter blades/Heaven and earth I’ve never moved so fast/You’ll never know the fear your mama has.” The verses, in comparison, are murmured, imbibed with the warmth of a parent sharing their memories to their child: her mother shows Nguyen a picture of herself with long hair and dressed in high fashion from 1973, tells her stories of men sending her love letters and poetry, explains that she gave grand speeches while working for the Vietnamese government, that “at night, like you, we danced to be free.” 

But along with the warmth and color, there’s a latent sense of pain and tension that’s overlaid with wisdom and resilience, coming out through the grittiness of the instrumentals; the main guitar melody, brilliantly isolated at the end of the track’s bridge, pierces and slices through the space like a medley of sharpened knives. Ngyuen repeats the stunning chorus one last time afterwards, but with a heightened sense of responsibility; she repeats her mother’s closing words to her, the call to action: “But we found freedom, what will you do now/Bury the burden baby, make us proud.” As a daughter of immigrants who fled their country for a similar sense of freedom myself, that last line gives me chills. 

Temple is out May 15.

 

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Porches – “Patience”

Yesterday, Aaron Maine released Ricky Music, his fourth full-length album as Porches. The eleven tracks that make up the album are aptly described as “emotionally open, cracked-glass pop songs,” subtly experimental in its instrumentals’ portrayal of vulnerability:  “Do U Wanna” is an enamored slow-dance, “Madonna” a textured pop stunner, “Hair” an infatuated ballad, all somehow, similar to the Picasso-esque album cover, paintings of emotion and experience in their own right. 

However, it is album opener “Patience” that haunts the subconscious, whether from the sparse instrumentals that slowly turn into an industrial fever dream, or perhaps, Maine’s piercing, heartfelt vocals, shrouded in a thin veil of acoustic guitar, practically dripping with honesty. Maine:

“‘Patience’ feels like holding hands jumping out of a tree, and all you can do is laugh at the mess you’ve gotten yourselves into, while the two of you spiral towards the grass in a beautiful sunset.”

The various textures within the instrumentals contribute to a sense of unease, unknowing; Maine, in a tired, but passionate drawl, admits “I don’t think anything is fine/But I want you to know/ That I’ve been thinkin’ about you now.” But in the same breath Maine assures them that “I’ll stop now/ I’ll stop now/ I’ll stop now,” the shaky repeating of the promise hinting towards something painfully difficult to fathom – that is, making the deliberate, impossible decision to suddenly cease thinking about someone you love. 

Ricky Music was written and recorded between Dec 2017 and the spring of 2019.  Mostly in New York at my apartment, but some of it in Chicago, Los Angeles, and various cities while touring around Europe. This record is an account of the beauty, confusion, anger, joy and sadness I experienced during that time. I think I was as lost as I was madly in love.  In these songs I hear myself sometimes desperate for clarity, and other times, having enough perspective to laugh at myself in some of my darkest moments. That’s sort of what this album is about, I hope you enjoy it.

Ricky Music is out now.

 

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photo by Max Hirschberger

The Bilinda Butchers – “See Ya”

Late last year we posted the third installment of our revisited series, which focused on The Bilinda Butchers’ 2011 EP Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams as well as their 2012 EP Goodbyes. I mainly attempted to re-analyze and interpret their incredibly enviable evocation and manifestation of nostalgia through the skilled manipulation of synth – something that, when it hits the senses, can still only truly be described as stunningly visceral. The essay was also partly in anticipation for their upcoming album, the first the BB’s (Michal Kepsky, Adam Honingford) would release in nearly six years after their wonderful 2014 LP Heaven. This highly anticipated release was finally announced last week as Night and Blur, and introduced by the absolutely brilliant first single “See Ya.”  

The first time I listened to “See Ya,” it was nearly ten p.m., and I was on the bus going home. I was exhausted, worn out from the week, frustrated by some meticulous thing, deep within the violent throes of my own psyche (it was one of those days, okay); needless to say, my heart felt more porous than usual that night, voracious, even, ready to willingly absorb the first thing that came towards it, which, in this case, was the diamond-esque synth beat that opens “See Ya.” Each crystalline drop, heavier than the last, pulls you deeper and deeper within yourself like a rope razor sharp like barbed wire, essentially forcing you to view the outside world from deep within the cavern of your own subconscious. The narrative begins once we’re completely ensconced.

Kepsky lets go of a past love, first realizing what led to the break was something akin to forced infatuation  – he sings “you know that I don’t like you/ you and I, we never felt the same/ but we used to say I love you/ after all this time I guess you’ve changed.” Though he initially sounds confidently vitriolic in these verses, perhaps realizing his own self-worth slowly but surely, his later lines subvert it, where he can’t help but wonder aloud “so where are you know that you let us go?/ are you happier on your own?,” the dense percussion building in strength and potency as to signal an impending mutation; he fully succumbs to the residual pain, repeating “I feel so alone” over and over over synth reminiscent of a water silo that has burst open from increased pressure. Again, we’re ensconced, but not by darkness or uncertainty – the synth explodes and swings around akin to a light show, orchestrated and chaotic all at once, illustrating, it seems, the abstract notion of catharsis.

Night and Blur is out May 8.

 

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Choir Boy – “Complainer”

Earlier this month, Salt Lake City based synth pop quartet Choir Boy announced the upcoming release of their sophomore LP Gathering Swans, the much anticipated follow up to their beautiful 2016 debut Passive With Desire. With Adam Klopp’s gorgeous, sweeping melancholic vocals fitting for an enamored opera hall, as well as its 1980’s inspired bleeding-heart synth instrumentation, Passive With Desire touched on the themes of tragedy as well as the ongoing struggle to discern where one’s faith really resides – Klopp channelled into the album’s lyrics the varied feelings that have remained residual from his adolescence, half of which he spent as a member of the Mormon church, and the other half as a regular at DIY punk venues. Gathering Swans will undoubtedly continue their brand of “choral-pop,” if lead single “Complainer” is any indication; putting the perpetually conflicted human psyche on display when it comes to the intricacies of lamentation, Klopp explains that the track “snarkily examines the self-absorption of sadness:”

“Complainer” multi-tasks as a pop song and a reminder to keep my privilege in check. The opening line ‘Oh my life’ was something I privately uttered while stewing over daily anxieties. It became comical to me that I would express my self-pity like that, in earnest, when my struggles seemed so relatively tame.

Klopp’s bright, elastic vocals are a stunning contrast to the crystalline synth that perpetually shatters and reforms in the background, both shimmering once it gets to the chorus, where he reaches self-actualization in admitting (and repeating) “it’s not that bad/ I never really had worse/ no, no/ I’m just a complainer.” He grows more impassioned with every line, simultaneously making fun of himself and reaching some form of understanding as the synth closes around at the last moment, and he remains ensconced in a cocoon of heightened self-awareness. 

Gathering Swans is out May 7.

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Steve Buscemi’s Dreamy Eyes – “For Ezra”

Stockholm indie quartet Steve Buscemi’s Dreamy Eyes (yeah, I know, incredible, but we’re moving past it, sorry) released their stunning album Sweetie this past Valentine’s Day, which, given the indulgent, luxurious synth work and enamored vocal stylings, feels accurate. It is the first official full length release from the group – consisting of Siri Sjöberg, Tilde Hansen, Elias Mahfoud and Edvin Arleskär – since forming nearly five years ago, and the focused intent to channel a specific sort of idea truly shows through in every single track:

The album is a concoction of stories from our lives – what it means to be young today, with the challenges and dreams we have ahead of us. The songs are collections and fragments of thoughts about our future, what we can, should and want to do.

While the album is full of incredible synth and jangle pop tracks, like “Stainless Steel” and “Complications,” our favorite track “For Ezra” borders on new wave –  the first initial burst of jangly guitar builds in strength until it resorts to a vibrant shudder in the verses, laying a foundation for echoed vocals to truly find a place to anchor themselves. The guitar glimmers and pulses as the words “love me, love me/ kiss me, kiss me/ hold me, hold me” repeat, but not from desperation; the words have within them a sense of confidence, regardless of whether or not they are granted and reciprocated, the blaring guitars hinting at something closer to self-powered resilience.

Sweetie is out now.

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