Review: If I’m Not by Dreamspook

For fans of: Radiohead, Sleep Party People, Dakota Suite

Dreamspook, a Minnesota-turned-Texas based experimental pop project fronted by Gabriel Jorgensen, has resurfaced with a new three-track EP. Jorgensen’s previous releases have managed to span genres and moods with ease, with his 2017 debut, King In The Folly Keep, serving as a Radiohead-esque full band venture and 2018’s Flying Mammal delving deeper into maximalist electronica. Dreamspook’s live show has traditionally been a solo venture executed with an array of synths and drum machines siphoned into precise loops, modulated beyond recognition, and ultimately brandished into a jaw-dropping performance.

It’s to some surprise then that If I’m Not, Dreamspook’s latest EP, shifts from the live sound to a simpler, more vulnerable lo-fi style. If Flying Mammal was the pinnacle of the inorganic experience, If I’m Not feels more “human”. Guitar, bass, and drums fill in a space normally occupied by gossamer layers of synthesizers. And while Jorgensen has been known for personal lyrics, often paired with some pretty interesting stories, and these songs showcase the same biographical style. Take the opening track, “Friend Seeking Friend”:

I am not old yet, but old enough
old enough to question what it is that I’ve got
whatever I expected, whatever I’d planned
didn’t think I’d feel as lonely, as lonely as I am

The lyrics may not be as cryptic of poetic as some of Dreamspook’s previous songs, but the sentiment is strong and the vocal execution and overall compositions behind the lyrics gives these lines a whimsical feeling.

The Bandcamp description says the EP is “three fruits from a barren season”. That’s telling of some of the inspiration of the album. While Dreamspook has other songs that could have been released instead, there is a sense of ennui; it’s a struggle of finding purpose, meaningful friendship, and self-love in an age of confusion and nihilism.

Even though If I’m Not is stylistically different than previous Dreamspook releases, it still has plenty of shared DNA with its predecessors. Thoughtful, intimate lyrics are paired with soaring vocal passages. Songs are dynamic and cinematic. Synthesizers, though more sparse than before, are still at play as well and work as a good backdrop to the rest of the compositions. Jorgensen enlisted Cooper Doten on bass, as well as King in the Folly Keep drummer Con Davison, to lend their talents this time around. The collaborative effort is certainly a net positive that gives If I’m Not a distinct place in the Dreamspook catalog.

The largest inhibiting factor to the EP is sheer brevity – three tracks and a run-time of under 15 minutes. It consequently feels a bit unfinished, though the Bandcamp tagline and Jorgensen’s move to Texas point me to think this serves as a bit of a turning point on the way to newer things. While the EP again does have cohesive themes, its end feels a bit too abrupt. A few more tracks would have helped round things out quite a bit in this respect.

Nonetheless, Dreamspook will continue to create. Only time will tell when or what the next iteration will sound like. But we can rest assured Gabriel Jorgensen and his synthesizers have more stories to tell us.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Slow Down, Rockstar by Fallow Land

For fans of: Six Gallery, Minus the Bear, Copeland, Foxing

Mathrock seems to be a pretty cliquey genre at time, even if it’s to the benefit of the genre. There’s the Midwest emo flavor, the “basically prog rock” version, variations of djent, or even the blossoming trend of mathpop. But as with any proper high school social context, there are outliers to these cliques – ones who might get along with everyone or the complete loners who are confident enough on their own.

Fallow Land carefully treads a space between post-rock and mathrock that is pretty rare. In fact, the closest proper comparison would be Six Gallery. In short, Slow Down, Rockstar is a chill, indie album that largely foregoes the punk and emo elements that seem embedded into mathrock’s genome.

Instead, the end result is somewhat of a poolside soundtrack of coffee shop playlist. It’s relaxing and captivating without feeling recycled or boring. And while a couple heavier moments (comparatively, anyway) are sprinkled in, the album’s sonic domain isn’t too far off from early Copeland or Keane in respect to dynamics. Many albums are mixed loud these days, but Fallow Land find a nice balance for their tracks.

The mathier elements are sprinkled in more subtly than songs crafted by Fallow Land’s compatriots; “The Body” may be the most obvious example based on its complex grooves, but even tracks like “The Eyes” showcase rhythmic prowess and abrupt-yet-precise shifts between segments.

The most refreshing aspect of Fallow Land’s songwriting is frontman/guitarist Whit Fineberg’s vocals. It’s hard to note any immediate comparisons, but it’s a timbre that, much like the rest of the composition, is neither bit too punk or too prog. There isn’t too much edge or any excessive flash here – it’s just a wealth of indie rock vocal treasure.

“The Boredom” is an exemplary track when it comes to showing the entire band at their best. Guitar lines are mathy. Lyrics contemplate existence. Bass is punchy. Drums are tight. It’s a smooth, melodic surface with a groovy undercurrent. Everything comes together in a sort of music symbiosis. Cap it off with a sweeping tremolo end and you’re left with a musical roller coaster that only ever ascends.

Slow Down, Rockstar may be a bit short at only eight tracks long, but not a second has gone to waste. It’s an emotional album complemented by powerful cinematic instrumentation. It’s mathy, but the technicality is more ornamental than front and center. Basically, it’s an intelligent indie rock album that explores themes of growing older, a work reminiscent of mid-2000s classics. It’s hard to imagine a better debut album from a band.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Lay My Head Down by Broken Field Runner

For fans of: Foxing, The World is a Beautiful Place, Pianos Become the Teeth, Touché Amoré

LA-based Broken Field Runner‘s sophomore release instantly evokes a similar mood to Touché Amoré’s Stage Four. While the bands showcase vastly different sounds, there’s some common ground in vulnerable, lamenting Cali emo. Since Wisconsin is a barren waste of snow for much of the year, I’m prone to associate beaches, palm trees, and warmth with good vibes.

There’s something striking about juxtaposing a would-be Utopian context alongside themes of pain, death, fear, and uncertainty. In fact, Tony Bucci’s lyrics seem to purposefully waltz into the uncomfortable: teenagers who die in a car crash on the way to prom, a mall shooter, general strife, and more.

And Bucci seems to play into the aforementioned tension as well: the album’s cover is a photo from a wedding and the singles were accompanied by summery, colorful imagery. At a glance, you might expect a fun pop record. But then you’re greeted by lyrics like:

If we’re all just bred for harvest,
if we’re to ever ward off death
it better be as starving artists,
it better be through drugs and sex,
it better be through my one true love.
You better never let me go,
but if you can’t do me the honor,
you better never tell me so

That’s not to suggest every song is crushing, but it’s certainly an emotionally-unnerving experience that thrives off disorientation. There are moments where Bucci doesn’t sing at all, instead having Laura Murphy take lead. There are bits of lo-fi recordings. There are extended spoken word segments. There’s even a bit of brass in true emo fashion. As soon as you feel you’ve figured out what Lay My Head Down is about, everything shifts and you once again need to navigate the new context.

Where most serious albums feel the need to provide a point of redemption, Lay My Head Down doesn’t settle for a happy ending. “Test Everything, Hold onto What’s Good” would seem to be more optimistic from title alone; instead, it’s a brooding eight-minute closer with the main refrain of ” I️ asked you why you lied. I️ was mistaken. I️ apologized.” The track grows in intensity, with Bucci belting the lyrics over a noisy guitar foundation. Even so, it’s one of the best tracks on the album and pairs well with “Palm Trees Wave” to bookend the album (“Put an Ocean Between My Self Pity & Me” feels more like a prelude than a true opener).

Broken Field Runner manages to not simply regurgitate the emo formula on this record. Its raw and authentic production matches the intensity of the lyrical subject matter. Its serious subject matter is paired with catchy choruses. It’s not a groundbreaking album, but it does just enough to break some old genre patterns. Bucci and friends are not afraid to take risks. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. But since when has punk-based music solely been about mass appeal? Lay My Head Down is a well-composed biography of struggle in the modern age that deserves a bit more attention.

Our Rating: 7.0 (Stand Out)

Review: Wire Mountain by Will Johnson

My path to appreciating folk and Americana was a gradual one that spanned several years and relied on a lot of transition bands. That process revealed a lot to me about music as a whole – that there’s a common DNA between quiet singer-songwriters and wailing post-hardcore outfits. You can enjoy both, albeit they’re to be appreciated in context of their respective contexts.

On first listen, Will Johnson’s Wire Mountain is a sleepy album that calls to mind other artists like Nathan Phillips (Winston Jazz Routine, The Choir at Your Door), Richard Edwards (Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s), and TW Walsh. Sleepy, of course, is meant in the most flattering of ways – an ethereal, quiet mix that exemplifies subtlety. Tender acoustic arpeggios serve as foundation under Johnson’s gossamer falsetto. Elsewhere, there’s a bit more grit at play – but even then, it’s as if the listener were in the desert amid a sandstorm. It’s still quiet, even if fearfully so.

Wire Mountain‘s cover is fitting: rustic, vintage, awe-inspiring. It’s the pursuit of a destination that is visible afar only due to sheer magnitude. It’s the diminishing feeling of being face to face with something much bigger than yourself, a la The Pale Blue Dot.

It’s a mood that runs think through the veins of the album itself. Even from the gritty undertones of “Necessitarianism (Fred Murkle’s Blues)”, the soft, eery feeling of being alone in the wilderness is at full force. The percussion feels like a hammer at an anvil. The tambourine conjures images of chains hitting the ground. It’s a track that feels intense and laid-back all at once, and this is a trick Johnson knows how to pull off with success.

“Cornelius” opens with a gospel-flavored vocal harmony paired with some of the most aggressive guitar and drums on the album. Even at his loudest, Wire Mountain doesn’t feel overbearing. The rhythms are far more foundational than ornamental here, and the steady pulse keeps things moving along without demanding full attention.

Other tracks embrace their softer side more fully. “A Solitary Slip” and “Shadow Matter” are both moody and airy jams that shimmer with simplicity and earnestness.

There are even traces of ambient compositions and unidentifiable noises on the album which gives it a surprising air of experimental flair (the album’s closer is a great example).

Wire Mountain sits well alongside fellow singer-songwriter Old Sea Brigade’s Ode to a Friend, release earlier this year. However, for every ounce of 80s and pop Ode to a Friend brings to the table, Wire Mountain brings its share of Americana and western-flavored spirit. And while Johnson may not bring the same flavor of artistry as the aforementioned Nathan Phillips and Richard Edwards, Johnson’s work certainly stands out among his local counterparts with its careful mix of nostalgia-evoking southern folk.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Pink Haze by Exnations

For fans of: The Cure, Ra Ra Riot, Pale Waves, Phil Collins, Wildlife, The Killers

Exnations is shrouded in a certain enigma, the kind that conjures questions like “How is this band not huge already?” Though the Brooklyn trio’s discography consists of two EPs (the first released in 2018), the craftsmanship on Exnations’ songs has no trace of a dilettante mindset. “Knife”, a standalone single, may very well be my favorite song of any band released this year. So, it’s a complete mystery how, with ready access to the NY market, Exnations is still largely unknown.

Thankfully, that hasn’t deterred the band in the slightest from simply making good art – whether songs or their seemingly-endless stream of music videos. Exnations might be best described as indie-pop, and it’s an accurate way to classify their artistic approach. The masses should like them, but they aren’t living for the dopamine rush of social media engagement. They’ve embraced the freedom of the DIY scene.

Pink Haze, the group’s latest EP, is certainly the pinnacle of their work to date. It’s moody, nostalgic, somber, catchy, and so much more. It’s a reflection of ephemera, akin to the Japanese expression mono no aware. It’s an awareness that beauty and pain are often inseparable in the dilation of time.

Ultimately, there’s a pervasive cinematic vibe here as well. Even if you have seen Exnations’ slew of videos, it’s hard not to imagine other scenarios paired with the six tracks on the EP. 80s prom. Standing on a rainy city street at night. Spending your anniversary alone. Hanging out at an amusement park. The group carefully balance youthful longing with the pain of loss. The universal nature of these feelings, along with the actual compositions, make it easy for these songs to feel like soundtrack to a plurality of life circumstances.

Exnations may have presented a strong EP to the heart, but they didn’t neglect the mind by any stretch. The trio have found a way to craft dense songs that still translate well live. Reverberating guitar, shimmering synths, prominent bass, and tight drumming are the quintessential core of the band’s sound, paired with frontman Sal Mastrocola’s soothing vocals for a sound that is dynamic but never too aggressive. Needless to say, the songs are carefully composed and feel cohesive lined back to back. The lyrics are personal, juggling themes of love, loss, loneliness, joy, and moving forward.

“John Hughes Movie Soundtrack” is perhaps the highlight track of the album. It’s one of the faster tracks, and contributions from all three members are excellent. Taylor Hughes’ drumming is exemplary; John O’Neill’s bass parts are punchy; Sal Mastrocola’s riffs are catchy. It’s a great starting point for new listeners.

Other tracks still hold their own, though. “Tether” is a strong opener and sets the emotional tone of the EP. “Slow Erosion” is a slower track and showcases the band’s use of negative space. “Dreaming Still” is a hazy ballad outro. The emotional context of the album is only strengthened by their ability to change page. It’s akin to driving on a city street after spending hours on the highway, where you need an extra degree of awareness to adjust to the speed limit. The slower songs here manage to demand even more attention before of how the EP is laid out, and that makes “Dreaming Still” an especially-devastating track from an emotional perspective.

Pink Haze is strewn with intelligent retro-pop with equal shades of cinematic clout and dance floor sensibility. It’s a versatile album that is primed to be one of the highlights of 2019.

Our Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

Review: Ten Seated Figures by Yes We Mystic

FFO: Radiohead, Anathallo, performance art, human psychology

Manitoba quintet Yes We Mystic’s latest album seems more like an art project mixed with guerrilla marketing strategy rather than a mere set of songs. Indeed, to prepare for the album, five additional guests were recruited into the mix – as members of the band who were featured in press, interviews, and even music videos. The band went as far as scheduling two separate shows at the same time where, with each version of the band handling a single show. The band later pulled back the curtain on the stunt, describing how it coincides with the album’s themes of the fallibility of human memory and the tendency to distort the truth as we look back on our lives.

While this isn’t the first time the group has been creative with their marketing efforts (Forgiver was accompanied by anonymous confessions gathered by a prompt they had scattered publicly), it’s certainly their most ambitious project to date. Horror movies have clowns walk around with balloons – but Yes We Mystic hands us a Mandela Effect-driven exhibition that at best causes us to question reality and at worst causes us to lose it entirely.

The album itself is perhaps equally disorienting in some respects; orchestral layers are piled in multitudes, while a combination of sound processing and playing technique manage to largely obfuscate the source of any given tone. Is it a synth or a violin? It’s frankly hard to tell at times. Ten Seated Figures is not a casual listen as a result. It’s too intentional to enjoy in the background.

Yes We Mystic’s sound has always been hard to pin. It’s easy to delegate them to “orchestral” or “folk” designations, but these labels alone undermine the heavy pining toward electronica and chamber pop. Their sound isn’t completely esoteric, but at the same time it’s clearly the members have a high taste in art.

Lyrically, the album doesn’t take any shortcuts. Thankfully the band contributed toward their own Genius page to shed some insight on the stories behind the songs. “Young Evil”, for instance, explores the power of expectation over human behavior and how preconceptions of who we are can shape who we will become. “Win Ben Stein’s Money” name-drops a defunct Comedy Central show while wrestling with the power of capital and its ability to destroy relationships. “Please Bring Me to Safety” more directly addresses the dissociation and question of if life is an elaborate fabrication. Ten Seated Figures seems more like a parable of vices left untamed; we see the characters altered by their circumstances, losing site of themselves to external agents. And while we don’t have the full background on these songs and the characters they depict, there’s a good chance that more clues lie in the album’s artwork.

Ultimately, Yes We Mystic have taken an artistic risk this time around – but it’s definitely one they’ve spent time calculating. Ten Seated Figures is laced with frantic, oft-danceable art pop with orchestral elements. It’s undeniably a little weird (for the standard music fan, anyway), but it’s not any more removed from the mainstream than Radiohead ultimately. Tracks like “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and “Vanitas Waltz” are quick hits, while others like “Italics” and “Please Bring Me to Safety” are growers. It’s an album that is far more balanced than an initial casual listen would indicate.

Ten Seated Figures is definitely a successful sophomore LP for the group, and it’s arguably stronger than Forgiver in many respects. The musical arrangements are more calculated, and the overlying concept helps unify the songs even despite their inevitable differences. It’s also their first time owning the responsibilities in the studio, but production feels crisp and professional. All in all, Yes We Mystic’s academic sensibilities and performance art integration are admirable elements that augment an already-strong album and make this one of the most interesting things to happen in the underground music scene all year.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Goodnight Paradise by Graveyard Club

FFO: The Cure, Frank Sinatra, nostalgia, ghost stories

There are some inescapable connotations that accompany a band whose name is Graveyard Club and whose song titles include “Witchcraft” and “Ouija”. But Graveyard Club is certainly a band that thrives off layers. Moving past the titles, you’ll find vintage-flavored album art, zany music videos with copious amounts of lemons, and a music flavor that rides the fine line between classic crooners and new wave classics. There is certainly nothing lifeless about what this band has to offer.

Goodnight Paradise is the group’s latest offering, serving as their third long-player to date. The crew had no trace of sophomore slump on its 2016 predecessor, Cellar Door, and fans have been waiting eagerly to see how Graveyard Club would follow up. “Ouija” dropped as a single in 2017, but it wasn’t until the end of this June that the band served up a proper release.

If you’ve ever had sibling just a few years older than you, you might have run into the uncomfortable moment where your teachers compare you to your siblings – if not overtly, at least in action and expectation (and maybe to your parents behind your back). Reviewing Goodnight Paradise feels a lot like being in the position of a teacher with younger sibling syndrome – it’s challenging to see it as a unique work with its own strengths when the natural inclination is to see it as a simple addition to the monument that was Cellar Door.

Needless to say, Goodnight Paradise is a decidedly a different album. There are, to some degree, fewer huge hooks (though it’d be remiss to say that an album’s impact is entirely dependent on its level of instant gratification). Musically, the tone is still vibrant – though the subject matter of the lyrics is a bit more intense this time around. The group have not labeled it a concept album, but there’s something about the use of names in the song titles that gives a certain sense of unity.

Graveyard Club do well to play into themes of loss and nostalgia with their signature blend of synth pop. Korg Minilogue meets sample pad meets pedalboard heaven for a sound that is more dreamy than spooky. Indeed, even when Graveyard Club tread through dark waters, they do so with wide-mouthed grins.

Even the lyrics obfuscate their dark undertones with proper cadence and poetry. It’s not a huge surprise for a band that was in part united by their love of fiction. It’s hard at times to discern to which degree the lyrics on Goodnight Paradise are biographical compared to which play out like short stories, but in the end, it arguably doesn’t matter. Graveyard Club is content to rest in a bit of mystery for the sake of art.

Even though Goodnight Paradise lacks some of the oomph of Cellar Door, that’s not to say it still isn’t peppered with captivating moments. The opening combo of “Witchcraft” (the album’s first single with accompanying music video), “Red Roses”, and “William” (another single) serves to set the listener up with some lofty expectations. “William” in particular seems reminiscent of Cellar Door‘s title track with its staccato synth lead. The next two singles come in as tracks 5 and 6. “It Hurts” is quite possibly the strongest song the group has released to date. Maybe the repetition of how “it hurts” connects with me on an oddly personal level (okay, it definitely does) “Finally Found” isn’t quite as strong, but it’s a hazy, danceable track that still leaves a good impression.

This is when things start to slow down quite a bit. The next high-energy track is a quarter of the album later (“Deathproof”), and the group have exhausted all of their singles at this point which makes Goodnight Paradise feel front-heavy. It’s not that the rest of the tracks are bad, but in some manner or another, they feel scaled back. Maybe there’s no big chorus or drums are in short supply; ultimately, several tracks feel like they’re missing something. Graveyard Club doesn’t feel like two separate bands, but they’ve got two types of songs. And it’s a bit hard to reconcile the differences in the context of an album, especially with how everything is arranged.

I’d be very curious to see the album broken into two EPs: “Witchcraft”, “Red Roses”, “William”, “Finally Found”, “It Hurts”, and “Deathproof” on one disk with the remaining songs on another EP. As a whole, the album seems to do a bit of goal-posting, setting an expectation for a certain type of sound before burning through all the hits and slowing pace abruptly.

Even so, there’s definitely lyrical cohesion in place. There are heavy themes of loss, coping with grief, death of friends and family, and the process of moving forward. It’s not an album that claims to have the answers but instead romances the authenticity of the questions it asks – the kinds of topics that you won’t find around a dinner table but that still haunt most of us. For this reason, it would be wrong to break apart the album. However, we’re left with an experience that seems to drift between two different worlds. Maybe that’s exactly what Graveyard Club wants – for us to wrestle with tension.

Our Rating: 6.7 (Solid)