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.
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.
FFO T. Rex, Grizzly Bear, Electric Light Orchestra
Rick Moon is in a world all his own. The talented Miami power-popper has been quietly putting together his own unique brand of fantastical indie rock since 2012, blending and modernizing sounds inspired by the likes of Harry Nilsson, The Beatles, XTC, and Grizzly Bear to name a few. Over the course of three EPs he’s slowly and steadily made a name for himself in Miami as both a songwriter and a producer, living out a passion for music that led him mainland from his birth home in Ponce, Puerto Rico as a college student. His newest effort, Electric Lunch, is his strongest to date, a surreal seven track EP with a near cinematic scope.
Anyone can make a paltry attempt at atmosphere with a guitar and reverb pedal, but Rick Moon doesn’t take shortcuts. Instead he painstakingly crafts each song to fill space in various inventive ways, using layers of synth, piano, electric and acoustic guitar, understated samples, and most importantly: walls of harmonies. The result is a rich sonic palette that rushes out to immerse the listener like a wave to the shore. It’s almost the musical equivalent to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the entire EP exists in it’s own lush, imaginative world of sound. This dreamlike quality is only reinforced by Rick Moon’s voice, which even without bolstering from multiple layers of harmonies has a sort of otherworldly quality to it.
Once you get beyond the atmosphere, a lot of the songs on Electric Lunch are also catchy and fun. Perhaps the best example is the mid-album standout Public Joke, a somewhat self-deprecating song about the spectacle of social media with garage rock riffs that call to mind Beck’s 90s material. Immediately following it is the whimsical Deadline with it’s flowing chorus and vibrant string arrangements; a song that somehow manages to remain a pop song even with loads of tempo, groove, and key changes. Even the much more low-key Goodbye has a recognizable Beatles pop charm to its almost barbershop hook.
The make or break part of the album for most listeners, however, will probably be the lyrics. Keeping true to the dream-world feel of the album, there is a certain whimsy to Moon’s vocal style that turns even his most direct lines into something that feels imaginary. He also has plenty of lines, especially in Magic Pity and Goodbye, that actually are just in the fantastical realm. While this definitely fits the vibe of his art, there is a certain hokeyness about it that makes it feel a little divorced from reality. For some this will be no issue at all. It certainly doesn’t take away from Moon’s greater artistic vision, but it does require some level of intentional suspension of belief, which unfortunately will make it less palatable to a large group of listeners.
If you are willing to suspend your belief, however, your reward is entry into Rick Moon’s world of imagination, and that is absolutely a reward worth seeking. Electric Lunch is a beautiful escape into something grander, something expansive, something undeniably other. Let your childhood curiosity free and experience it today, you won’t regret it.
“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”
“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”
Hamilton Ulmer has felt like a stranger for almost as long as he can remember. The son of two “unorthodox” parents from rural northern California, Ulmer spent most of his childhood in San Antonio, Texas after his family relocated there for work when he was just two years old. Though he lived there for the majority of his formative years, he and his eccentric family struggled to find their place, leaving Ulmer with a nagging sense of alienation that followed him even after he moved back to California in his adulthood. When his father died of lung cancer in 2011, these complex emotions and unanswered questions compounded into something that needed an outlet. The result, for Ulmer, was the 2015 Makeunder EP Great Headless Blank which wrestled not only with the death of his father, but all of the things that went with him: memories, a cohesive narrative of Ulmer’s youth, and the homes their family had inhabited. Great Headless Blank was a series of grief vignettes; potent, melancholy songs that earned the critical praise of NPR’s Bob Boilen among others. Immediate and powerful, those songs were an exercise in grieving and left many questions to be answered later.
Four years after the fact, Ulmer and Makeunder have returned with a true master work, their first proper LP, the three act concept piece Pale Cicada. Thematically, Pale Cicada picks up where Great Headless Blank left off, piecing together what life is for a poor man who has always felt out of step even as he deals with the residual grief of his father’s passing. “I know that I can’t help myself/ how do I live with this sadness?/ Give me something real/ before I sink into the ground/ with no story to tell” goes the hook of the opener and title track Pale Cicada, the closest thing to a mission statement on the album. As he writes he delves succinctly and capably into just about every angle he can find of his situation, dealing with poverty on the psych-funk In Between My Dead End Jobs, taking an esoteric side glance at marriage on Ringing Chord, reclaiming childhood on Ain’t That a Trip, and exploring his father’s death with added perspective on Begin in the Middle. For most of the album Ulmer’s lyrics are sharp and frank in their heaviness, but if you were listening casually you would never know. Each line is delivered in Ulmer’s smooth Soul/RnB voice, through acrobatic runs, complex harmony chords, and often staggered staccato melodies.
Sonically, Pale Cicada also diverts some attention from the weight of the words: it is largely up-tempo from track one and at points even danceable. The second track and first single In Between My Dead End Jobs might even be considered poppy, leaving aside a sudden dark turn into Tom Waits territory for a portion of the bridge. Describing the complex, often dense arrangements as a whole however, feels impossible. One could call it RnB or Funk, but neither term does any justice to the highly creative, genre-bending sounds that Makeunder accomplish on this record. Opening track Pale Cicada veers into art-rock territory with heavy distorted guitars and blaring trumpet sounds before swinging into a soulful, almost anthemic chorus. Begin in the Middle sounds like Prince succumbing to the dark side with its haunting harmonies, vocal slap-back, and heavy drum groove. Ringing Chord seems to reference Justin Vernon with subtle vocoder layering on the lead vocal and an ambient arrangement, while I’m Still Living Wrongly goes from RnB, to folk, to a swelling string crescendo, to a sinister noise rock break, before landing a triumphant guitar solo and going back to folk. Pulling off genre fusion at this level is extremely difficult, but Makeunder make it look easy each and every song, creating one of the most instrumentally interesting albums of the year to date with little real competition in sight.
Inevitably though, not every experiment on such an experiment heavy album can land. Though second single Promothean Heat succeeds in its off-kilter verses and it’s unexpected, Kendrick Lamar-esque harmony walls, it’s ascending refrain feels done just to prove it can be done. It’s nonetheless still incredibly impressive, but doesn’t seem to line up with the line that sits on it, one of the less chaotic lines on the album. In that regard the album’s biggest strength is in one way also its biggest weakness, it’s experimentation at once makes it one of, if not THE most interesting album of the year, but for more casual listeners the sheer amount of things happening at any given time could be easily overwhelming, even despite the clear pop sensibility Ulmer shows throughout with his melodies.
If you are willing to dive into Pale Cicada though, it is an incredibly rewarding listen; a truly master class album both lyrically and instrumentally. It is definitely dense, however. Even after several repeat listens you will still be picking out things you hadn’t heard before in the mix: overlapping guitar lines, backing vocals, metaphors, and lyrical tie-ins between tracks. For Ulmer it is the culmination of a life of personal struggle, and here he makes his statement emphatically and in the grandest possible fashion. His work of self-processing is complete, but for us listeners the processing has only just begun: it could take a lifetime to milk from this all that it has to offer.
Zack makes up for all the time he’s missed. The best music on Not a Sound for February 2019.
February was a quiet month for us at Not a Sound. Due to a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances we did not cover nearly as much music as we would have liked to, which is all the more unfortunate because a lot of great albums came out this February. To make up for all the stuff we missed out on, this monthly recap will cover several albums that we did not have time to review. Hopefully we will be able to revisit these albums in the coming weeks to give them the full coverage they deserve, but for now enjoy this run-down of absolutely killer records!
2020 – Shin Guard (8.2)
Post-hardcore, Hardcore, Screamo Flowerpot: February 14, 2019
Shin Guard’s expansive 2018 debut Cerebral showed us a creative young band with a lot of potential on tap. Their unique brand of progressive screamo breathed new creative life into a subgenre that was never famous for being particularly mutable and made Shin Guard a clear band to watch in the DIY touring circuit. Less than a year later we once again have a new Shin Guard album and once again they’ve caught us by surprise. Where the melancholic Cerebral shifted seemlessly between melodic emo and harsh posthardcore, 2020 is markedly more angry, more technical, and more heavy hitting, calling to mind Svalbard and Rolo Tomassi. On songs like Spears and the later half of Soliloquy of the HourglassShin Guard devolve into frenetic mathcore almost reminiscent of Dilinger Escape Plan, and yet they still manage to contextualize beautiful cinematic moments in Sure and a smooth jazz saxophone line in You Will Be Held Accountable For Your Actions without ever feeling hoaky. 2020 is a bold evolution in sound and focus for the young band and a critical step forward in establishing them as a band that should be on everyone’s radar.
new breed – Dawn Richard (8.0)
Pop, Art Pop, R&B Our Dawn Entertainment: January 25, 2019
Dawn Richard’s 5th studio release is art-pop at its finest, a catchy and concise homage to her home town of New Orleans. There is hardly ever a dull moment on new breed. Book-ended by two mostly A Capella pieces that catch the ear and establish the album’s narrative, and carried by amazing standout tracks new breed, spaces, jealousy, and the feel-good we, diamonds Richard’s newest is exhilarating start to finish. Driving the album is Richard’s powerhouse vocal performances, which when combined with lyrics that are sharp and socially aware without getting too heady help make a rare record that is substantive without sacrificing any fun. If you’re looking for something that is accessible without forsaking creativity, understandable without becoming vapid, and through it all maintains a unique, engaging perspective then this is the ideal album for you.
thank u, next – Ariana Grande (8.0)
Pop, R&B Republic: February 09, 2019
Whereas listening to Sweetener felt like sitting on a cloud, thank u, next feels firmly grounded in reality. Opening track “imagine” is a classic Ariana ballad that paints a picture of a simple vision of love, the subtext of course being that she knows this vision is impossible. The sadness in her voice is palpable. Although lyrically it is similar to past releases, she sings it differently than she would have if the song had been released six years ago. thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her record is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not this record alone that accomplishes this, but the thrill of her artistic progression over the last six or so years. For the first time, she has truly shown us her flaws, and the result is her biggest statement as an artist yet.
Hardcore, Chaotic Hardcore, Metalcore Holy Roar: February 02, 2019
Holy Roar is hands down the best label for inventive heavy music right now. Last year they put out two of our top 25 albums, Svalbard’s It’s Hard to Have Hope and my album of the year Rolo Tomassi’s Time Will Die and Love Will Bury it. Not only were they both incredible records, but they were also two of only four metal or metal-adjacent records that cracked either of our editor’s end of the year lists. Continuing on their path to domination, Holy Roar can now also tout London’s newest and most ferocious hardcore act Ithaca and their dynamic new record The Language of Injury. In a genre filled with a lot of solid, but very similar bands, Ithaca shatter the mold to deliver an album that is at times mathy, at times sweeping and emotive, and at times chaotic. From the very first track Ithaca seemingly conjure and channel the ghost of Josh Scogin’s youth, creating an album that feels as fresh and free as early Norma Jean and The Chariot did in their day. It is a huge breath of fresh air for the genre and a huge statement from a band that should quickly become a mainstay in the hardcore/metalcore commnity.
Suffer On – Wicca Phase Springs Eternal (7.5)
Hip-Hop, Emo Rap, Emo Run For Cover: February 15, 2019
Suffer On is a startling return-to-form for Mcllwee. Although his melodic style never changed drastically from Tigers Jaw to Wicca Phase, the parallels are even more apartment on the new record. This is largely due to the acoustic nature of many of the tracks. Previous Wicca Phase releases have featured production from a variety of artists in the emo hip-hop sphere, including Doves, Fishnarc, Nedarb, and the like. On this record, Mcllwee takes production largely into his own hands, and the result is a more minimalistic sonic world than many fans will be used to. There are no obvious samples, and very few fully electronic sounds. Instead, the music is mainly driven by acoustic guitar chords that call to mind the emo music of the Tigers Jaw days. The song “Crushed” doesn’t even have a beat, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2013’s Charmer. It offers a strong connection to Mcllwee’s emo-rock past. Fans of Wicca Phase’s acoustic EP, Raw and Declawed, will most definitely be pleased here.
Alternative, Power Pop, Grunge Secretly Canadian!: February 01, 2019
After a ringer of an album in 2017’s Apocalypstick, Cherry Glazerr are back with their solid follow-up Stuffed and Ready. Back again are Clementine Creezy’s sardonic lyrics and gleaming hooks, but this time they are contextualized in a much more straight-forward package, giving up some of the quirky experimentation of the previous album for big, sludgy, grunge. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable power pop record that revives some of the best parts of 90s alternative and finishes it with a dark psychedelic sheen. Fans looking for another Apocalypstick may find themselves disappointed in the album’s more conventional approach, but there is still a whole lot to love condensed into this 30 minute escapade.
Abject Bodies – Minors (7.0)
Hardcore, Powerviolence, Chaotic Hardcore Holy Roar: February 22, 2019
Continuing their aforementioned trend of putting out good heavy records, Holy Roar once again deliver with the newest release from Ontario powerviolence band Minors. While some heavy bands go for flashy guitar playing and epic soundscaping, others, like Minors, favor a more brute force approach. Abject Bodies contains 8 of the meanest, heaviest, most dissonant songs in recent memory. Each passing song is like being bludgeoned with every single tool in the shed one by one, and then for good measure, again but all at once. For those who love this sort of thing, it is a wonderfully cathartic album that stands out firmly from its crowd. Needless to say, however, it is definitely not for everyone.
Everything For Sale – Boogie (6.8)
Hip Hop, West Coast Hip Hop Shady/Interscope: February 01, 2019
Boogie’s first commercial record is most enjoyable when he locks into a groove and runs with it, as on album highlight “Lolsmh (Interlude).” The first half of the track features one of the sweetest instrumentals on the album as Boogie delivers some vulnerable bars, “It’s hard for me to be happy / Wish my girl would just dump me / I done showed you all my ugly, but why the fuck you ain’t judge me? / No, my skin ain’t thick, it’s thin, it probably bleed soon as you touch me / I love it if you hate me, I hate that you fucking love me.” His flow is flawless and delivery sincere (calling to mind Saba’s incredible CARE FOR ME); on tracks when he is on, he is a very captivating and believable.
thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.
Ariana Grande’s rise from teeny-bopper Nickelodeon star to pop icon has felt fast and slow at the same time. Initially, her music career was aimed to market towards the tween audience that watched her on TV, but she rejected this after releasing only one single. Instead, we got her excellent 2013 debut, the Babyface-produced Yours Truly, which effortlessly blends the styles of the R&B/pop legends of the 80’s and 90’s with production updates and tweaks that kept it fresh but not trendy. The beats and R&B aesthetic meshed well with rappers, allowing her singles to cross over from pop to urban charts. The records that followed saw greater success, as producers used her natural talent and charisma (not to mention that voice) to mold the Ariana brand into a variety of different styles, ranging from EDM to pop-ballads to reggae.
Although this brought on great success in the charts, there was no clear picture of who Ariana actually was through her music. In interviews she would clap the label “honest” on all of her songs, but there was always a personal aspect that seemed to be lacking in her music. Although she had writing credits on many tracks, it was unclear whether or not she was an artist or a puppet, another pretty face and big voice that was in the right moment or the right time.
This all changed with 2018’s Sweetener, released last August. The album was a huge step forward from her previous work, lyrically and sonically. Many of the songs on the first half of the album were structurally progressive, as Pharrell helped her tap deeper into her hip-hop influences and broke her out of the usual pop tropes. Lyrically, the album delves into more personal territory; many of the songs openly discuss her engagement to comedian/actor Pete Davidson, and also healing from the bombing that famously took place at her concert in Manchester. It seemed that she had finally found her voice as an artist; her music sounded more her’s than her producer’s.
Then just when things were going well, her ex-boyfriend, Pittsburgh’s own Mac Miller, died suddenly from a drug overdose. Her relationship with Davidson fell apart in the wake of this tragedy, and her relationships and life were so analyzed by the media that people started to get sick of her, when in the previous months she had been untouchable. It is with this context that she released thank u, next a mere six months after her last record.
The quick turn-around does not disappoint. The songs sound raw and blunt. Whereas listening to Sweetener felt like sitting on a cloud, thank u, next feels firmly grounded in reality. Opening track “imagine” is a classic Ariana ballad that paints a picture of a simple vision of love, the subtext of course being that she knows this vision is impossible. The sadness in her voice is palpable. Although lyrically it is similar to past releases, she sings it differently than she would have if the song had been released six years ago.
The second track, “needy,” whips her back into reality. Over a melancholy chord progression she sings, “And I’ma scream and shout for what I love / passionate but I don’t give no fucks / I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up / I’m obsessive and I love too hard / Good at overthinking with my heart / how you think it even got this far, this far?” It’s easily the most vulnerable and authentic she’s ever been on a track. These lyrics feel real and the simplicity of the instrumentation emphasizes the raw place that these songs came from.
Ariana does not stay on the sad-girl train the whole album though. Immediately following “needy” is the bouncy “NASA,” which might be her catchiest song ever. It’s an ode to being alone, to wanting space rather than being forced into it. The hook is so addictive that I’ve actively listened to it ten-plus times in a row; it’s the perfect example of what a pop song should be.
If the entire album was as good as the first three tracks, we would probably have a modern classic on our hands, but unfortunately that’s not the case. She dips into the faux-Latin trend on “bloodline” which lacks the authenticity of the previous songs, and seems clearly geared for air play and streams. “bad idea” takes a darker turn, with heavy bass blasts and an ominous guitar hook. This track features one of the more experimental productions choices, with a brief instrumental orchestra break just when you think the track is ending. It sounds cinematic and dark, and as it swells, an altered beat kicks on with Ariana’s vocals pitched several octaves down, making it sound almost like a Future track for a few seconds.
The record has quite a bit of variety stylistically, but sonically all the songs fit in the same world. It rarely slows down except on the airy ballad “ghostin” which speaks vulnerably about her own faults in her high-profile relationships. “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again,” she sings over whooshing synths and sparse strings. It reinforces that this is a truly personal record, even more so than Sweetener. Whereas Sweetener felt like a calculated reaction and intentionally big statement, thank u, next has a flash-in-a-pan quality that brings the messages home much more strongly; it showcases Ariana as a songwriter and as a somewhat hardened celebrity. She sings (and at points, actually raps) with more conviction, more force, more confidence.
thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her record is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not this record alone that accomplishes this, but the thrill of her artistic progression over the last six or so years. For the first time, she has truly shown us her flaws, and the result is her biggest statement as an artist yet.
Singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has a modern version of a classic success story. She did not grow up in a particularly musical family, but at age seven began taking harp lessons, and as her love of music grew, she expanded her instrumental pallet to include guitar and piano. During high school, she attended a Berklee College of Music summer program and won their songwriting contest, spurring her to continue to focus in that area.
Eventually she found her way into New York University’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where she recorded and self-released a folk album in the vein of early Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens. During this time, she studied abroad in France where she started listening to house and dance music, and after experiencing an extended spell of writer’s block, began creating new music that combined her folk melodies and lyricism with the backbone of the dance genres she fell in love with in France.
Her real success came in the form of a viral video. The legendary Pharrell Williams, an in-house musician at N.Y.U. at the time, visited a music production class that Rogers was enrolled in to critique the students’ work. In the video, a visibly moved Pharrell tells Rogers that her song “Alaska” is basically perfect, saying “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.” Coming from one of the most influential pop/hip-hop producers of the past two decades, this was about the best endorsement she could get, which launched a massive major label bidding war. Now, nearly two years later, her debut full-length has arrived via Capitol Records.
This context is necessary because it takes up a fair amount of the subject matter of the album. In many ways, Heard It In A Past Life is the story of an introvert suddenly thrust into the spotlight. One of the album’s lead singles, the folk-pop “Light On,” deals with this head-on in the first verse, “Oh I couldn’t stop it, tried to slow it all down / crying in the bathroom, had to figure it out / with everyone around me saying, ‘you must be so happy now.’” It’s not angry or whiny, but a genuine expression of confusing emotions; her story is one that many dream of and strive for, but is terrifying when actually experienced.
But the record does not wallow too long in this specific space; It is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship. The Pharrell-approved “Alaska,” exemplifies the instrumental Rogers’ instrumental depth. The beat is intricate and layered, with subtle syncopated synths adding a bass-layer of melody as Rogers’ voice floats overtop, “I was walking through icy streams that took my breath away / moving slowly through westward water / over glacial plains.” The imagery shows her deep-connection with the natural world, which makes her stand out in the context of most pop musicians. Elsewhere, she uses samples from nature that she collected on hikes; “Overnight,” sounds like it samples a bird call as a percussion instrument. It’s fresh and creative while still being accessible to pretty much everyone.
Despite the danceable beats and sugary hooks, Rogers remains first and foremost a songwriter throughout the album, with her lyrics as a central focus on the record. Back-half highlight “Retrograde” features one of the album’s most passionate vocal performances, in which she belts the chorus, “Oh here I am, settled in on your floor / quieting all the world outside your door / and I am reckoning.” It is authentic, passionate lyricism rarely found in much of today’s pop music.
Ever since Lorde’s debut Pure Heroine in 2014, much of the pop landscape has been defined by cool detachment and cynicism, or simply over sexualization of the star. Maggie Rogers requires neither of those things to be successful. The way in which she throws herself into her music with such genuine love and passion is refreshing because it relies not on cultivating a pop image, but just in being her and sharing music that she is passionate about creating. Rogers is clearly making music that she loves, and it is a joy to be able to breath it in with her.
What holds the album back from being great is the major label-ness of it. This is not to say that top-tear production is bad; I myself am a big fan of pop music, and high-end production is not a strike in my book. But, there are moments when the album lacks a certain edge, when the crispness of the drums and guitars are a bit toocrisp, and it feels a bit wrong. It’s not inauthentic, but it holds some moments back from being as cutting as they could be.
That said, the record remains a breath of fresh air for fans of pop and folk alike. It is one of the only folk-pop records that I have genuinely enjoyed, because it’s not soft and dumbed down, but is a creative testament to what can happen when an artist takes genuine inspiration from the two seemingly opposed genres. More than anything, it establishes Maggie Rogers as an artist to follow in the coming decade.