Her’s – “Harvey”

Ever since their debut album Songs of Her’s last year, it seems as if Liverpool duo Her’s have slowly been going through a musical revolution. Whereas the debut mostly housed muted, moody jangle pop tracks like the dense, smoldering, guitar heavy  “What Once Was” and the starry-eyed, brooding “Marcel,” the first three tracks released in anticipation for Stephen Fitzpatrick and Auden Laading’s sophomore LP Invitation to Her’s are far more outgoing in nature, filled with brighter melodies and quirky vocal effects, not to mention more specific, stylized lyrical narratives. “Harvey,” inspired by the 1950 film of the same name, tells the story of a man whose best friend is a six foot, invisible rabbit named – you guessed it – Harvey. And it truly does sound straight out of a retro black and white movie, with its swelled, romantic, accordion-esque synth and rapid, waltz-like instrumentals, playful and bouncy but with a simultaneous aura of deviancy; the glitchy vocals that peek out from behind the deep warbles before the chorus act like both the metaphorical angel and devil upon our protagonist’s shoulders, the protagonist himself not without that slight hint of quirk that people can either take as charming or the sign of a lunatic. He croons that “Harvey/ Nobody knows what I see/ Everyone thinks I’m crazy/ Crazy for you/ Oh boy,” falling more in love to the point where you can basically hear the crazed, infatuated smile that forms on his face as he sings.

Invitation to Her’s is out August 24th.

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photo by Neelam Khan Vela
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FUR – “What Would I Do?”

One of the best parts of FUR’s newest single is the ending. No, no, not like that, I promise. The ending of “What Would I Do?” is especially stunning due to the way the Brighton jangle pop quartet winds up getting there – for a track under two and a half minutes, the amount of foundation laid down beforehand first must be able to support such a large, full-bodied closing, and, much like previous single “If You Know That I’m Lonely,” Murray, Harry, Tav, and Flynn are sure to deliver, first providing us with a ‘50s, doo-wop inspired instrumental track with a piercing, self-aware lyrical narrative:

“It’s based around the realization and actuality of the people who surround you at any given time can quickly become distant and not part of your life, and maybe having feelings of sadness towards the uncertainty of not having familiar faces around in life.”

The deep vocals do tend to sound unfettered at first, but once they reach the chorus there’s suddenly an aura of sentimentality attached to them, battling the feelings of not being wanted not only by a lover, but from your peers as well (“All of my friends/ Are about to be no one/ I gotta feel for myself”). He admits to having selfish feelings, but they ultimately come from a place of hurt, the pain building until the instrumentals have no choice but to rise up to match his croons, resulting in an existential ending filled with hypothetical questions cut off as quickly as they were introduced. Perhaps they don’t need to be answered, at least not right away – the track does seem to exist simply and brilliantly as a quick burst of nervous, anxious energy disguised as a love song, an expulsion of energy and emotion as a way to overcome the swirling thoughts inside the head and heart.

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photo by Julia Nala

Strawberry Mountain – “Zookeeper Submarine”

Whether they call it psych rock or bedroom pop, Strawberry Mountain’s music never ceases to explode with color. A fitting description not only considering the (somewhat meta) title of the Seattle diy avant-pop collective’s May release – the five track EP She Exploded Into Color – but also due to the nature of their individual collaborative energies, which seem to result in something iridescent and multi-faceted, shimmering from virtually every angle. Ending with “Vietnam,” a complex, chaotic, yet incredibly intimate track about lost youth and the overarching desire to discover a sense of inner peace and happiness, the EP had the group succeeding in melding emotionally dense narratives with incredibly meticulous instrumental work, not to mention driving home the idea of avant-garde music that ultimately leans more towards performance art pieces. Their newest release is no exception – “Zookeeper Submarine” runs a mile a minute, with it’s bright, arresting palette of guitar and equally intense synth effects, Carter Prince’s vocals taking on different moods with every section of the track. Yet it’s the little deep pockets of introspection nestled within the fire of everything else  that makes it that much more stunning, the moments where Prince lets us in on little dark secrets and frustrations (“Maybe I’m melodramatic/ But I live to be abused/ I feel safer when you and I are volatile/ I’d like you in my life once in a while”) set to jaunty, off kilter guitar plucks that gives it that same emotional, complex edge as their earlier compositions, the scintillating energy it builds up for the closing crescendo that proves its worth. 

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photo by Sofia Lee

Mini Album Review: Lab Partner, I Fret

Lab Partner, also known as twenty year old Indiana native Jiles Beaver, self-released his debut album I Fret at the beginning of March. I will admit that I only took a quick listen to one of its eighteen tracks when I came across it on bandcamp the first time; a track laden with the buzzing and humming of guitar strings as well as the palpable weight of intimate silence that must have come as a result of recording everything himself in his bedroom. It was calm, and reserved, save for the occasional impassioned croon that seemed to reverberate against the walls. I closed the tab, but I was back again the next day like clockwork, playing the album while sitting in the corner of a tiny, crowded cafe, working on essays and trying not to get toast all over my keyboard. The second time around, I found myself jumping from track to track haphazardly until I ended up listening to it in its entirety, at the same time trying to pinpoint exactly what it was that kept me there, in spite of Beaver mentioning in the liner notes that it’s an “eclectic collection of songs made by a tyro…not great, full of mistakes.”

With his warning in mind, I lingered longer and played the minute and a half long “Jackal’s Cry” coming to the conclusion that it was, in fact, an experimental album, with a unique, polarizing compositional and emotionally purging vocal style reminiscent of indie contemporaries alt-J. Next came “We’re Bombing Out” and soon that evocative instrumental potpourri transformed into focused, retro guitar rock, complete with a bouncy bass line and moments of existential introspection with deep, irresistible vocal flourishes peppered in for good measure. I then clicked on “Fellow Heart Carver” and “Crimson” and immediately it went back to the same quiet, earnest nature as when I first started. Needless to say, I Fret ultimately ended up existing as an incredibly multi-faceted, extensive, emotional work, something in which Beaver said he made “out of necessity”:

“The state I was in mentally wasn’t the greatest. It was a cathartic process that I was desperately in need of. I had only really tinkered on instruments here and there and I still wouldn’t consider myself much of a musician, but I needed to try and make something for myself. I had no direction for it – whatever emotions that needed to surface, came out on this record.”

It was clear then that I lingered not only for earnest composition and writing, but to also witness the process of self-healing simultaneously. Eventually I landed on “Victory,” the one track that seemed to have a little bit of everything, and the one that seems to be closest to this mention of catharsis, considering it was mostly inspired by “the things that can build up inside you,” the things “that crawl to the back of your skill and refuse to come out.” It starts out immediate and arresting, Beaver equating the inability to focus on the white dots in favor of the peripheral greys on an optical illusion he once saw in a grocery store to the inability to get over the past, an explanation that I wish to present in full here:

“A scintillating grid is able to glint because of your peripheral vision, though if you fixate on the center of a white dot, the black and grey ones will disappear. So, the lyrics are relating to the grey dots that keep pestering the eyes and mind to the past mistakes or regrets that you can have. You’re so overwhelmed by the “peripheral feelings” that it’s beating you down physically, and mentally, losing the will to centralize your thoughts and attention on the present… We deal with our own judgement, which can be brutal in itself. Then, we have the constant judgement of others. It never ends. It’s sad. You have to try to find your footing on a ground that’s continuously shaking.”

Much like this perpetually shaky ground, the instrumentals go back and forth from a wobbly guitar melody to full, expansive moments of hazy introspection, at the end of it all begging the universe as well as himself in a trembling, yet stunning warble that “I need relief,” solace from all the incessant noise. Soon the instrumentals begin to swirl and swell, and, greedy, but nevertheless blatantly and intrinsically human, that same intense yearning for deliverance eventually evolves into the overarching desire to start anew, to transform into someone learned, albeit a touch weathered:

“Not just a single win, but victory over it all. The judgement, the mistakes, the thoughts, the recurrence.”

Fortunately, I Fret is filled with victories like this, victories over the pain and frustration it strives to convey in its narratives though both directness and metaphor. And, in the end, I didn’t mind the fact that it possibly didn’t sound as full-bodied or fluid as Beaver perhaps wanted it to sound, or that it was, according to him, “full of mistakes.” How could it be? The majority of it is filled with moments of honest, truly thoughtful writing and passionate, varied vocal work with emotion bottled at the source of its emergence; it houses those vivid moments where you can be completely and utterly sure that within this album lies his entire being, his whole heart.

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photo courtesy of artist

Aunty Social – “Screwdriver”

Much like the title suggests, most of the sounds in the newest track from Toronto based artist Aunty Social were apparently created by banging a screwdriver around the studio where it was recorded. It sounds metallic and harsh at first, even emulating the sounds of a pinball machine, but then the random noises settle, her bright, flinty vocals helping to slowly and delicately ease them into something warm and inviting. The result is something industrial in tone but ultimately vulnerable and human in nature, a gorgeous ballad touching on the subject of intimacy. She asks, awash in waves of emotion, in atmospheric, radiating synth “if the ocean/ comes in/ will the waves hit our sins/ in time?” Deliberate yet apologetic, the distortion grows thicker, leading into a glitchy expanse of existentialism. And yet, somehow it sounds hopeful despite everything it strives to question, perhaps due to the small, yet stunning  moment of clarity directly beforehand.

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photo by Jean Carlos Rodriguez

Scuba Dvala – “Soy Boy”

Ironically, the new single from Scuba Dvala – the musical project of Sweden-based artist Fredrik Bergstrand – is as luxurious instrumentally as it is tongue-in-cheek lyrically. And I’ll be real with you right now: it’s taking every ounce of my being not to make a vegan joke about “Soy Boy,” but thankfully the temptation curbs every time I hear the self-awareness of the lyrics. Though he’s perpetually ensconced in trance-like, glimmering synth throughout the track, he’s light-hearted, poking fun at his appearance and strength, not fitting the quintessential aura of masculinity: “my skinny arms/ strong enough to pick any fruit you want/ not very tall/ but I can reach on my toes.” He’s confident, however, telling his beloved that they’ll “be warm/ next to a peach fuzz herbivore,” that sooner or later they’ll be falling for him, that they too will soon be “going green.” There’s also a slight 80’s vibe embedded into the chorus, something so textured and pronounced from the added vocal swells towards the closing that made me equate it to the energy that radiated out of MGMT’s most recent album Little Dark Age. Despite the obvious humor, the smoothness of Bergstrand’s voice rids it of any pretension or pomposity, leaving you with a charming, lovesick ballad.

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photo courtesy of artist

Herbal Tea – “Kitchen Floor (4 A.M.)”

The best kind of dream pop always seems to house two of the most beautiful qualities that art can have (as well as two of my favorite qualities to write about in music), which tend to be raw honesty and near fearless vulnerability. One can’t exist without the other; with such an intimate genre, it’s usually pretty easy to determine whether or not a musician or artist is being sincere in their sentiment, whether or not the lyrics are sung with the intent of the artist both soothing themselves as well as allowing the listener something to relate with, an experience in which dream pop tends to offer more readily than other subgenres.  However, everything seems to be in near perfect balance within “Kitchen Floor (4 A.M.),” the new track from twenty-two year old Bristol based musician Helena Walker, also known as Herbal Tea (as well as ½ of the dream pop duo Sleep Radio). Existing as a bedroom pop project, the track was written, recorded, and mixed by Walker herself, capturing the complex feelings of solitude and introspection at an odd hour, not quite night but not yet morning either, a time in which dark and light seem to be interlocked in perpetual battle. In between muted, murky guitar and crystalline piano, she wrestles with her self-deprecating thoughts and desperate desires, admitting towards the end that “I don’t know what I’m worth/ but I want someone like an old friend.” Her voice, much like the dark of the guitar and the light of the piano,  appears and flows in surges and waves, attempting to overtake each other, but it is ultimately the light, the piano, that both literally and figuratively ends up winning the battle, the little pinpricks of keys simulating the first beams of light to filter through the windows and into the kitchen.

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photo courtesy of artist

Yifan Wu – “Say the Words”

As I write this, I’m sitting by the window in a tiny coffee shop, with my eyes darting back and forth from my laptop to the giant trees swaying back and forth in the wind outside. Soon enough I’m focused exclusively on the trees, also taking note when the sun disappears for a split second and bathes the interior of the shop in blue tinted shadow, only to go back to piercing light once again. The heat in Austin has been incredibly stifling these days, but the fact that we have the chance for even a little bit of wind or the tiniest probability for shade is enough to brave going outside. Maybe it’s because I’m listening to it at the same time, but I can’t help but equate the soothing nature of Yifan Wu’s newest track to the same breeze in spite of our perpetual summer, a much needed breath of simple, yet equally refreshing indie soul to brazenly cut through the heat. The production, done by Wu as well as writing and recording, is bright, clean, and crisp, subtly overlaying a wobbly, slinky pop melody over classic jazz-inspired chord progressions. The instrumentals sound patient and tender to match the narrative, which expresses the facets of a personal subject for the Toronto based musician:

“The song is essentially about one of the struggles of being in a long-distance relationship – being unable to connect to the person that you love. You can try your best to text and call and visit each other, but sometimes there are just periods in time when life gets busy and the connection is lost for even a split second. The lyrics describe that feeling of yearning and needing to be to reconnected.”

Wu, in flawless falsetto, shyly explains that “I know that you’ve told me this before/ I just need to be sure,” later admitting that “the silence is eating up my soul” before unleashing a barrage of gorgeous, meticulous vocal runs, adding to the potent soulfulness introduced at the beginning. Though it originally came from a place of frustration – as Wu explained – he instead chooses to be whimsical and charming, to the point where you can nearly hear the sly smirk on his face as he sings, almost as if he knows how it will all turn out. Most of all, however, he manages to convey an addictive sense of hope, putting equal faith in both himself as well as the one he loves. 

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photo courtesy of artist

Andrew Younker – “Oracle Girl”

Well Wishes, the newest jangle pop stunner from Michigan based artist Andrew Younker, honestly contains some of the most luxurious, unique synth I have heard in quite some time. They sound incredibly intimate yet painfully distant at the same time, chaotic and overflowing yet organized and collected with such immediacy that it doesn’t end up sounding heavy or disingenuous, instead the complex little details and flourishes he chooses to use ultimately adding to it’s warmth and color. The album, recorded, mixed, and mastered by Younker himself, begins with love songs then moves on to those that sound more introspective in nature, all prefaced with the idea of turning twenty, of being a “grown-up” without having any “grown-up intentions.” Younker further explained his intent for the introspective tracks, which was, again, highly specific:

“I’m definitely not as mopey as the song titles would imply but sometimes it’s just cathartic to write a sad track and I’ve always loved listening to people experience catharsis in their music, so I just do what I know.”

While some of the later tracks do tend to go through their own respective catharses – including the anxious synth that merges into a murky haze in “Lucky Saw The Lights” as well as the nostalgic, near technological sounding blubbery chimes in “Wasting My Life” – it is, in fact, the so called “lovebird” track “Oracle Girl” that houses the most stunning catharsis within the entirety of Well Wishes. A smorgasbord of varied techniques, the track seems to contain multiple energies, yet ultimately powered by an incredibly distinctive, coursing surge of jagged, brooding synth that has since nestled in my brain like a familiar friend. Younker pleads that he “don’t wanna be the boy of her dreams/ ’cause no girl should be wasting her dreams on me…don’t wanna be attached to these things,” the self-deprecation enhanced as soon as he steps foot into the pool of synth that, in turn, seems to lead us into an entirely new expanse, cornered on each side with embellished, harpsichord-esque instrumentals. They grow louder and louder, hypnotizing and overwhelmingly simulating an emotional purge, with Younker throwing in different melodies and flourishes one after another to the point where you think everything will run over the sides. But at the last moment he effortlessly takes back control, that same brooding, mesmerizing synth appearing as a saving grace for us to latch onto once again.

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photo courtesy of artist

Matty – “Nothing, Yet”

Even though it might sound hazy and untroubled due to its chillwave and synth pop leanings, the debut solo album from BADBADNOTGOOD’s Matthew Tavares is an incredibly vulnerable, personal work, with evidence of pain, heartache, and the process towards eventual, albeit intense self-healing in just about every single one of its lyrical narratives. It’s also not completely clear from the enamored instrumentals that make up “Nothing, Yet” that the rest of Déjàvu is a project three years in the making as well as the result of Tavares’s self-described mental breakdown, which he explained on social media:

“I felt completely defeated by life and constantly at odds with a voice in my head that could only scream negative things at me or predict the worst possible outcomes…I finished my touring obligations and subsequently started working non stop on music, which I felt was my only outlet to mental recovery. I realized that art is a laboratory for facing that negative inner voice in a controlled environment.”

It is the moments within the track where Matty switches from self-criticism to honest vulnerability, where that same lush, iridescent orchestral melody changes to muted pastels, that ultimately induce chills – his voice, hazy, delicate, but sincere and fearlessly direct, tells us outright that “before I die I want a world of/ connections/ but I’m too afraid of always being/ rejected,” his voice entering that second falsetto breathlessly, seamlessly as if being slowly relieved of the weight on his shoulders as he sings. Not long afterwards, he introduces the full palette once again in the form of an avant-garde, Beatles-esque orchestral interlude, but now it sounds sensitive, fragile, even hopeful underneath all the gauze. Although it comes from a place of emotional and mental strife, the album is, ultimately, a beautiful example of what can result from working towards some kind of peace within yourself, as well as a chance for others going through similar hardships to feel less alone.

Déjàvu is out now.

Photo by Matthew Tavares