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)

Review: With or Without by Overslept

FFO: tasty math rock riffs, pop rock vocals, immaculate rhythm sections

Technically-inclined music has typically distanced itself from its catchy indie-pop cousin. They’ve largely coexisted like high school cliques, shooting glances across the room to acknowledge the other exists, though this exchange is nothing more than minutia in the majority of cases. Most artists would have you believe that songwriting lives in this kind of binary; riff-driven songs engulfed in poetic lyrics face off against catchy, carefree songs you can’t wait to show your friends. There will be blood. Tickets on sale now starting at $10.

Actually, let me back up a bit. It would seem that some bands have a knack for carefully balancing these competing elements. It’s a strange process of musical osmosis whereby one extreme is diluted a bit but neither part is sacrificed. It’s the sort of mood that bands like TTNG and Anathallo carry with them, but even these bands have largely been constrained to specific circles of fans.

Denver-based Overslept seem to have found a rare place in modern music on With or Without, their 2019 sophomore LP. While it’s, at least in some respect, a heavier record than its predecessor, it’s an incredibly balanced set of songs. Beyond the aforementioned technical and pop-friendly elements, Overslept show their aptitude for diversity in other respects: loud and soft, energetic and tired, retrospective and hopeful, lament and laughter. It’s a record that reads like the human experience – it never dwells too much on any given feeling, but at the same time, it’s undeniably cohesive.

Some of the cohesion sits on the lyrical side. The album’s title is referenced several times (“Thirteen Thirty One”, “Anhedonia”, and the powerhouse title track) and it’s phrase met with different instrumentation each time. There’s also a subtle nod to touring partners Father Mountain on “Anhedonia” that only a handful of listeners will catch. Ultimately, the lyrics are very strong and the album certainly has a narrative played out through joy, doubt, pain, loss, and redemption.

However, it’s ultimately the context of the lyrics that makes With or Without such a strong album. Frontman Elias Armao’s delivery is excellent. Armao has one of the more unique voices in the indie rock genre, with a soulful elegance you’d find from Hotel of the Laughing Tree. It’s impassioned and earnest, yet there’s a radio-friendly quality all the same. This time around, he’s joined by fellow guitarist/vocalist Mickey Postilion who works in some harmonies and vocal trade-offs.

It wouldn’t be too unfair to call this a math-rock album. As such, the riffs are in no short supply and there are plenty of moments where a guitar part is just as catchy as a vocal chorus. Drums and bass aren’t given an easy job by any stretch, but the pocket never lets up for even a moment.

Without or Without is an amalgamation of the good things in life. It’s a music cookie-brownie that takes the strengths of competing dynamics and synergizes them. You’ll be belting out the lyrics one moment and having an internal heart-to-heart in the next. It’s a high-energy, pop-friendly album made by serious musicians with something to say, and that alone distinguishes Overslept from their peers. You may have overslept on this album, but it’s definitely worth your time.

Our Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)