There’s some interesting about packaging. I was at a small Asian grocer once and had a bit of a conversation with the owner. She stressed how a lot of the natural, healthy foods she had were raw and the labeling was pretty simple. There were shelves of the amorphous grains and plants which could only be discerned upon individual inspection. Not far off, there were some of the same ingredients with a level of Western advertising employed. The packaging was modern and bold. Even though the product was the same, it was presented in a way that seemed to affirm its essence. It’s sort of like how plating food a certain way can make it seem more exquisite.
All this said, while album art does not make an album successful on its own, it is supplementary to the story and mood of the work (the same goes for liner notes, videos, and behind-the-scenes elements). But just as important, it’s often the first entry point people have for a band and as such, gives the first impression of a band.
Enter Birthday Wish‘s latest release, Soft Witness. The cover seems like a false memory, an inverted trope. It’s an image not unlike what you’d find at a dentist’s office or hotel hallway – a family at a pool with palm trees in the background. It’s an instant nod to the band’s Miami roots, but to most listeners it exists instead as an aloof paradise where snow doesn’t fall on Halloween and leisure is more available (ignore my Midwest rant).
Of course, there’s the distortion as well, the sort of aesthetic you might find with vaporwave art. The sky’s hue is skewed magenta, the mood eerie. At the same time, it’s not overly contrasted or dark. It’s daytime, but the sun just happens to be a black light. There are two people alongside the pool, one with something in the water. She’s dressed like an animal control agent or maybe a police officer.
Maybe that’s an unnecessary dissection of Soft Witness‘s cover, but it’s worth noting it leaves an impression. It’s mysterious, nostalgic, unsettling, and detailed all the same. It sets the tone for the band’s ethereal surf punk sound that spans the release’s seven tracks. The exact ratio of endearingly-nostalgic and unsettlingly-dissonant does shift frequently, but end result a tight set of tracks shrouded in an unusual mix of emotions.
While other recent releases have played more heavily into the nostalgia factor, this tends to be via extensive synth use in pursuit of a new wave sound. Birthday Wish is nostalgic in another sense, though it’s hard to articulate the exact reason. Gossamer vocals paired with angular guitars is reminiscent of early emo, post-hardcore, and even sadcore. Synths do make an appearance, but they’re far from central. Soft Witness is undeniably a rock album, though an exact genre label is hard to find.
Jubilant moments juxtapose more intense segments. Groove-heavy tracks coexist with more laid-back counterparts. Soft Witness covers a lot of ground in its 16-minute run time. “Safety” is anthemic and upbeat; “Other Minds” is somber and night-timey; “Hubris” is cinematic and reminiscent of The Rise of Science’s older work; “Liturgy” is bass-heavy and falsetto-laden.
Ultimately, Soft Witness‘s music is not unlike its cover, dropping listeners in a world where emo developed from beach rock instead of punk. It’s a sound that seems like a distant cousin of post-punk and new wave all the same, replacing synths and gimmicky guitar lines with intricate, cosmic compositions. Birthday Wish have found the intersection of oft-disparate genres, and the end result is a release that hits home for fans of 90s and early 2000s indie rock.