Review: Soft Witness by Birthday Wish

For fans of: Mew, The Rise of Science, From Indian Lakes, TTNG

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.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Humble Universe by November Lounge

For fans of: jam bands, modern jazz, beach rock

Last year was evidently full of great albums that were easy to miss. From the opening drum grooves and crystalline guitar passages of “Out of Touch”, you’ll regret not finding November Lounge sooner. The band’s core sound is a summery blend of indie rock and jazz that manifests in songs that feel huge and cinematic. Arguably, this PA-based trio does prog better than many self-described prog bands.

There are nuances on Humble Universe which point toward a myriad of influence: the jam-band-esque “Tired”, the dreamy balled “Roots”, the ethereal “West Coast”, and the mathy “Wise Man” manage to show the spectrum of the band’s intelligent songwriting.

Humble Universe seems aptly-titled. It feels down-to-earth. It reminds me of local bands in my area or even smaller bands around the country. For whatever reason, it’s not a sound that seems to exist in the mainstream even though there is a heavy degree of mass appeal at play. “Humble” feels entirely appropriate, then. November Lounge is not boasting incessantly or standing on a pedestal and they don’t need to. Their music speaks for itself and it does so genuinely.

The lyrics follow in suit, opting for a more “say what you mean” approach rather than an egregious amount of obscure wordplay. It’s a relational album, though it’s far from myopic. We see love at its best and worst – the full roller coaster of emotions and the questions that come along for the ride. Humble Universe is not going to win a Pulitzer Prize for its lyrics but it manages to avoid pop cliches and still have something tangible to say.

The best part of the album, though, is the overall mood. Aaron Abercrombie’s voice is perfect for this sort of music, with its buttery timbre. The drumming is incredibly technical and energetic. Guitars weave between melodic bliss and funky chord-based segments. Bass is groovy and packs a decent punch. This results in an album that is relaxed but has a sense of urgency all the same. It’s not quite coffee shop material because of some of the powerful rhythm sections, but it wouldn’t be at home in a club because of the more restrained vocals and guitar parts. This is an unfortunate placement in some respects, but it cements the album’s position of being written for humans and not commercialism.

Hopefully Humble Universe has proven an effective gateway to the Philadelphia music scene for November Lounge. It’s an album that leaves an immediate impression. It’s a cozy collection of songs perfect for this time of year that satisfies both pop sensibilities and technical songwriting.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Death Magnanimous by Troll 2

For fans of: AJJ, Pat the Bunny, The Dead South Murder by Death, Dixie Chicks

If you’re been around the block for a while, you’ll recognize Troll 2 as that immediately divisive movie released in 1990 with little connection to its predecessor that sits at a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has garnered colorful reviews like the following:

“Troll 2” is as treacherous and repulsive a film as I’ve ever seen. Judging by the actors’ crude performances and the incredible lack of technical skill, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved in the production knew what they were doing or what was going on. The first explanation that comes to mind is that all of the badness is intentional, but even I don’t think that a purposely awful film would come close to the ineptitude shown on display here. It’s ugly, poorly-strung together, not scary in the least bit and altogether a real horrible thing. The only half-redeeming quality about it is that its own awfulness may cause you to laugh, but don’t count on it.

Thankfully, this is not a review of the film – but instead, of a band who has chosen the film as its namesake. Boston-based Troll 2 is socially-conscious folk-punk group formed in the 2010s from a host of other bands. The band carries a similar wit to The Dead South (if the name weren’t proof), tackling issues like the wage gap and police abuse with energetic, direct songs. There’s even a touch of macabre mixed in as well, in true AJJ fashion.

Death Magnanimous, the band’s 2018 LP, certainly holds nothing back in any of these respects. After the instrumental interlude “Theme From Troll 2”, the band dives into the murder ballad, “Means and Motive”. Stylistically, it has a bit of Carrie Underwood-esque vocals mixed into the aggression of the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”. Here’s a check look at some of the lyrics:

She came to me, calling after midnight
Sobbing in the bathtub with still her sweater done
As I watched the water run from salmon into scarlet
I knew right then and there we would not stop ’til this war’s won

We packed the car and we headed down to Danvers
I at the wheel, her small frame shotgun side
I’ll erase evidence like you erase accusations
Why is justice for others so often self denied?

The song addresses domestic abuse and manipulation of power with bold lyrics and enchanting instrumentals. Strings aplenty adorn the album, but it never feels needlessly southern. The musical compositions are worthy to accompany their lyrical counterparts, showcasing the same levels of wistfulness and aggression.

“I’ve Got a Stick” is a playful anti-violence song whose highlight line is “Kiss your mom / I’ve got the bomb”. There’s a silver lining on the ending verse (which is an alternate take on the first), which focuses on the power of cooperation.

Other tracks, specifically “Roadkill” and “You Should Think About Death More” focus more on mortality, ephemera, and perhaps even depression. However, these are not cheap sentiments; rather, they’re meant to be viewed in light of the other themes on the album. The underlying commentary is a call to action rather than a simple regurgitation of how depressing modern life is. “There’s no end until you face it”, the album concludes. It’s easy to read that as acceptance of mortality but it’s also an implication that the problems that permeate society will persist if we simply ignore them.

“Theme from Troll 2 – Reprise” perhaps sheds a bit more light on the album and band as a whole. It’s a counterpart to the opener, but it contains lines from the Troll 2 film. Specifically, the lines concern the infection which is a main plot point of the movie. As characters contract the illness, they are in stasis, simply waiting to be devoured. It’s not hard to see a confused, burdened, and largely-passive public in the same way. The infection is already here, and we’re called to be on guard.

Death Magnanimous is an example of how folk-punk should be: culturally-sensitive, masterfully-crafted, clothed in timelessness. If it were an instrumental album, it’d be easy to mistake it as baroque. If it were judged on lyrics alone, you might expect a large influence of swamprock and country. But it instead rests in the confluence of artisan string melodies, upbeat folk, and lyrics that never shy from tough issues. Troll 2 stand out from their compatriots with their ability to balance all of these elements without sacrificing any relative portion of a single aspect. And while it’s unfortunately too late to add Death Magnanimous to your end-of-year favorites, this is certainly a band you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

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)