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: 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: 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: 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)