The future is not what it seems. Just down the road from where I am writing this is the Pittsburgh Waterfront, a booming shopping district built over the bones of Andrew Carnegie’s steel dynasty. It’s a scene familiar to those of us who grew up in Pittsburgh, the city that bounced back, one of the few rust-belt towns to find new life once the nation’s mills closed down: what is old is bought out by developers and turned into housing plans and sprawling strip malls, often separate from and inaccessible for those who lived through the changes. In the rural counties just outside the city limits this process is even more exaggerated. Not an hour north from downtown Pittsburgh sits Butler, once a district filled with family farms and the farthest corner of the city’s industrial hub. These days the old manufacturing districts have folded into a post-industrial wasteland and the few farmers remaining are increasingly forced to sell off parcels of their land to the same kinds of developers who gentrified much of the city to their south. For many this is the face of the future; an inescapable wave that leaves the old ways propped up in ruins and the new just out of reach. But some, like Butler’s own progressive folk outfit String Machine, are rejecting the life they’ve inherited; taking the lessons they learned from “the frozen ruins of Western Pennsylvania” and using them to press forward into a future all their own.
String Machine’s music is an ethereal and vulnerable blend of folk, punk, and indie that invites the listener into it’s own sonic world; a nostalgia-laced place that “provides joy while wondering if joy is even possible.” On their sophomore record, The Death of the Neon, the seven piece band have reached a near spiritual point in their creation, blending everyday experiences and esoteric imagery into something that feels potent and transcendent. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on early standout Old Mack, a song that takes the story of being bit by an old dog and spins it into a contemplation on life and death with lines like “not all hounds go to heaven/ but I don’t know where the bad ones go”, “I’ve got it tied tight around my face/ blanket soul keeps the sap in my head”, and “let’s put make-up on my scares today/ and go see Manson at Star Lake/ and hope we wake up the same.” Throughout the record, lead songwriter David Beck uses images like the above to give a sort of surreal feeling to the scene he’s describing. Perhaps the best of these surreal images comes on the second track and lead single Eight Legged Dog where Beck sings an uneasy and slightly disturbing chorus: “the eight legged dog/ is coming along/ to ruin your grain.”
Several of the more vivid images also recur throughout, making Death of the Neon strikingly cohesive. The dog image occurs first in Eight Legged Dog and then again in Old Mack, the first as a personification of some dreadful thing and the second as a literal old hound. Similarly the phrase “soft margins” and the sap image pop up any time vulnerability comes into frame, while the phrase “excite again” first appears in No Holiday/Excite Again to signify doubting the possibility of joy and then appears as an inversion in Comforts From the Cobweb to signify a joy so powerful nothing could excite you beyond it. In the middle of the album the breeze plays a spiritual role in multiple songs, first drawing a comparison to a god and then a sense of calm and belonging with “in the breeze it’s alright to be.”
It’s the attention to such small details that sets The Death of the Neon apart from similar albums, or from most albums in general. This trait carries over into the whole arrangement as well. Every song is painstakingly layered with beautiful harmonies from their second vocalist Laurel Wain, sublime synth and piano lines, acoustic and electric guitars, strings, and even the occasional trumpet. It’s maximalism without the attention-seeking, complexity for the sake of sheer beauty and nothing else, and it’s the prime reason that Death of the Neon remains just as rewarding with each repeat listen as it is on the first play-through.
As with most albums in this vein, the main downside, if you can call it that, is in accessibility. Beck sings his lyrics in a loose, impassioned way that is heavily inspired by midwest “twinkly” emo and other 90s-inspired indie rock. The strength of this approach is that it conveys strong emotions well and has a sort of everyman charm, while the downside is that to the uninitiated it sounds pitchy and unrefined. When juxtaposed with Laurel Wain’s more ethereal voice, however, it reinforces and mirrors the band’s dual imagery: one part earthy, jagged past and one part dreamy, transcendental hope in a possible future.
Overall, Death of the Neon is easily one of the most complete and cohesive records of the year so far, and a shining example of our artistic mission statement at Not a Sound: build a world, not a sound. It’s an album you can dissolve into and explore over and over, unpacking new layers piece by piece with every fresh listen. Whether you’re a fan of psyche folk or if you didn’t know it was a genre until today, there’s a lot to experience, a lot to discover, and a lot to enjoy about String Machine‘s masterfully crafted new full-length, due out this Friday, August 2nd. The future is now, choose today what you will do with it.
8.2 (Best New Music)
Released: August 2nd, 2019
Label: Earthwalk Collective