Review: Ugly is Beautiful by Oliver Tree

Oliver Tree often asks, “Where is the division between the man and the meme?” He attempts to answer this question but fails to satisfy me with his answer. Oliver Tree is an artist who slowly burned onto the scene rather than bursting onto it.. Having released many singles and an EP before putting out his debut album and developing a methodology of turning yourself into a meme for the purpose of marketing he’s certainly worked hard to get to where he is now. However, as revealed in recent interviews with Anthony Fantano and MTV, this is also his last album.

He revealed that he is tired of working with record labels and having to become someone he’s not simply to release music and be paid for it. ” ’I’m just ready to drop all the bullshit and just get to be the real guy, make the real art,’ he said on a Zoom call with MTV News from inside a domineering plastic bubble.”1 Right after telling Anthony Fantano that he’s tired of marketing himself, he brought out a large document that he wrote for his senior project on how to become a meme.2

There’s immense tension in his music and character. On one side you have someone who writes music about being a genuine person. On the other is a person who doesn’t seem to be his genuine self. He has explained on various occasions that the jacket is his mothers and one that he wore growing up, his haircut is similar to one he’s always had, his JNCO jeans are the ones he’s always wanted, and his scooter is one that he’s ridden as a professional. This doesn’t resolve the tension that I felt, though. He’s taken some qualities of himself and turned them into a caricature, a meme.

Despite this tension in his artist persona, his music sings to me – as someone also going through early adulthood – of his journey through self-discovery and growth. He sings of feelings of being outcast and “other” while gazing upon society and seeing people just fitting in and not living out who they really are. It’s a call to action to create and live life with vision. Instrumentally, it melds genres such as indie, alternative, rap, and pop. It calls back to music he may have grown up listening to while still sounding unique and genuine.

Ugly is Beautiful caught my attention in a way that most pop albums don’t. I went in having heard one track and was taken in with every aspect of it. It was easy to see a genuine person in the lyrics and instrumentals. It kept every track interesting without falling into the trap of trying to make everything a banger. You could feel the enjoyment of the music making process and the real experiences he sings about.

The standout track in this album for me was “Hurt”. It details feelings and experiences around becoming a semi-pro scooter rider and an accident that happened during a competition. Lyrically and instrumentally he gets at the despair that you feel when you have things like this happen, when everything you know is taken away. Throughout many of his other songs, he writes about his struggles with drugs and feeling ostracized by others. Throughout this there’s a feeling of hope and confidence as he comes to terms with who he is and what he wants to do.

He seems to be following his own call to action as he leaves music – for now at least – and looks to start his own film production company. He’s seeking to make films he’s passionate about without having to deal with the bureaucracy and money of the music industry. After watching his music videos, there is little doubt that he will succeed as a filmmaker with vision. I will be interested to find out, however, which side of the internal dissonance that he’s displayed will win out.

Our Rating: 8.2/10 (Best New Music)

Release Date: July 17, 2020

Label: Atlantic Recording Corporation

1 Patrick Hoskin, The End of Oliver Tree as We Know Him, 17 July 2020, http://www.mtv.com/news/3166867/oliver-tree-ugly-is-beautiful-interview/

2 Anthony Fantano, Oliver Tree INTERVIEW, 16 July 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPpsNTAhpUE&t=47s

Review: This Isn’t Funny (LP1) by Metadiscorse

FFO: beach rock, lofi, bedroom pop, progressive rock

I’ve been called an old soul for preferring albums over singles and EPs; indeed, it is far more common to see bands releasing shorter (and more regular) works to appeal to dwindling attention spans and the saturation of dopamine that is omnipresent. That’s not to say singles or EPs are lazy, but they’re certainly more convenient from a commercial standpoint. Albums largely seem to be on their way out.

Enter Metadiscorse who have crafted a two-disk long player behemoth of a debut. The first part, This Isn’t Funny, is officially out today (along with some bonus live tracks), and the band has not cut any corners here. Six of the eleven tracks are over four minutes long, with several tracks approaching the six-minute mark. Even the conscious decision to go beyond nine or ten tracks seems significant. And while LP2 is still forthcoming, if we assume it’ll be comparable in length, this ends up being quite a hefty project.

Sonically, the band describes themselves as lofi and bedroom pop – neither of these is inaccurate, but I’d also add in terms like beach rock, grunge, and vintage psych. It’s full of moments both viscerally joyful and passionately vulnerable as frontman Hunter LoBianco croons over a variety of compositions that transport listeners from quiet docksides to restful country hamlets.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons to fellow Wisconsinite band Horace Greene, with their own unique flavor of retrospective rock. Metadiscorse has enough unique DNA in the form of more unique song structures, wide stylistic influences, and overall dynamics. However, vocal style and guitar tone are probably the biggest shared element between the two bands, and it’s hard to mentally separate the two.

“American Troglodyte” arguably serves as the flagship track on this LP and serves as a prime example of what LoBianco and friends are capable of. It’s the longest track, but none of that time is wasted. A waltz-like piano base and auxiliary percussion open the track, but the end is a whirling crescendo of full-band instrumentation. While the album has several instrumental (or at least nearly-instrumental) tracks, this build easily stands out among its compatriots.

One downside to the album format that many critics are justified about is the ability to be cohesive; personally I’m drawn to concept albums which play off motifs, lyrical themes, and elements of self-reference. Can you write a good album without these? Yes. But there’s a tendency for some albums to feel like a collection of singles more than anything else. And when a band like Metadiscorse sets out to release an album of such proportions, it’s hard for things to not feel consistent at times. The narrative inevitably suffers a bit. And genuinely, even some of the most ambitious (and greatest) albums begin to drag a bit as they surpass an hour runtime.

There are plenty of solid moments on This Isn’t Funny, but cutting a track or two could help it feel more solid as a whole. “Self Esteem” is a grungy interlude track that feels out of place on the album to begin with, but its slot as the second-to-last track seems to disrupt what would have been the one-two punch of “American Troglodyte” and “Out to Get Me”. “Problematic” and “Mid-Air Collision” are both stripped back type tracks, but even they feel too lofi for an album marketed as such. Juxtaposed against “Open Letter to Ms. Caroline”, these songs feel perhaps a bit under-developed.

But apart from these songs, there’s not too much to complain about. Sure, production could be a bit more pristine but there wasn’t a $20,000 budget here. The band has been fairly resourceful and the end result still sounds pretty crisp. The variety of explored genres is exciting, especially the mathy “Tokyo Drift (Conventionally Unattractive”. The variety may feel like a bit of a musical identity crisis at times, but there’s huge potential for the band to market specific songs to different audiences and leverage themed playlists here.

Metadiscorse is fearlessly-ambitious on this release, and they’re not afraid of the short-term commercial impact. This Isn’t Funny is ultimately a chill album that feels cozy in the quiet of your home but would nonetheless have allure live as well. It may not feel completely well-rounded, but barring a few earlier complaints, it’s definitely a strong debut album that is certain to help you slow down and appreciate beauty in the simple things in life.

Check it out here or on most digital streaming outlets.

Our Rating: 7.4 (Stand Out)

Review: Random Desire, by Greg Dulli

The new Greg Dulli solo album is the creative culmination of a 30-plus year career.

FFO: Greg Dulli, Greg Dulli, and Greg Dulli

Random Desire is billed as Greg Dulli’s first solo project. Even if you ignore the fact that Dulli already had a solo debut in 2005 (possibly a technically , since it was released as quote Greg Dulli’s Amber Headlights end quote), Dulli’s bands—the Afghan Whigs, the Gutter Twins, and the Twilight Singers—were always driven by his singular creative vision. His bandmates played important roles, but they were always in service to whatever muse Dulli was following at the time. If Dulli is fronting a band, it’s going to sound like his project, period.

After “reuniting”* the Afghan Whigs in 2011 and releasing two albums (2014’s good Do to the Beast and 2017’s excellent In Spades), Dulli found himself in need of a creative outlet as the band again went on hiatus.  Random Desire is that outlet; inspired by Prince, Todd Rundgren, and other one-man-bands, Dulli wrote, played, and recorded the whole album himself (save for some guest spots from his pals). While there’s a slapdash quality here as a result, the album is still the most diverse release in Dulli’s career, revisiting almost every creative detour he’s taken while venturing down the occasional new path.

*more like adding an original Whig member to the Twilight Singers line-up

One of the most fascinating things about Dulli’s creative output over the years is that as his songwriting accumulated new wrinkles, he’d take those elements to his next project and continue building. So while the Whigs started off as a loud college rock bar band with serious ’60s R&B/soul undertones, they kept expending, ladling in more and more nuances. And then the Twilight Singers added a dollop of electronica and sunny indie rock. And the Gutter Twins folded in some late ’80s Nick Cave vibes. Random Desire keeps with this trend, as all of these elements swirl and slosh around. Some songs, like the glorious “The Tide,” revisit touchstone points (in this case, Black Love-era Afghan Whigs, with a huge upswell of guitars, piano, and Dulli’s howl). Other tunes try some new tricks, like opener “Pantomima”—it’s maybe the single most joyous-sounding thing Dulli has released. And “Scorpio” slinks along with a sexy vibe that’s carried by a trip-hop backbeat and some impressively syncopated verse vocals from Dulli.

If Random Desire suffers, it’s mainly from the limitations of keeping this to a one-man affair. I’ve always found Dulli an underappreciated musician, a true jack of all trades whose musicianship was always eclipsed by his huge on-stage persona. But while a more-than-capable multi-instrumentalist, Dulli’s playing never strays far from what he’s done before. The same can’t be said for his vocal performance—Dulli’s raspy yowl aims for some sultry low notes that are far out of his range. It’s endearing, but still a bad fit for the album. And it’s also not helped by the thin-sounding production; Dulli might’ve been shooting for this early Prince aesthetic, but it doesn’t mesh well with the anthemic swells that frequent his songs.

Random Desire is also the most lyrically diverse of Dulli’s career. Dulli’s songs have always been about the brooding and self-destruction that comes with passion. But here, he seems to take a step back and look at the sadness, joy, and peace that comes from relationships (or, like in the album’s standout “Marry Me,” broken relationships). It’s still Dulli, but this is the most mature he’s ever sounded (or, his persona has sounded, if there’s any actual difference between the two).

Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, Random Desire covers a lot of ground in a little time. Even with its limitations, the it’s the most true sounding recording Greg Dulli has ever released. Maybe that’s why it’s being billed as his first solo album.

Our Rating: 7.9 (Stand Out)

Random Desire is out now on Royal Cream/BMG.

Review: The Coming Collapse, by Foxhall Stacks

Washington D.C. hardcore veterans’ power pop debut spins on our society’s collapse

FFO: Material Issue, early Fountains of Wayne, The Smithereens

Despite being a perennial punching bag in some corners of music journalism, power pop lives on. The earliest power pop bands took British Invasion melodic sensibilities and turned it up, pairing big hooks with self-deprecating longing. Each successive generation of power pop musicians added a new wrinkle or two while simultaneously worshiping at the Altar of Power Pop Past. At this point, power pop, as a form of pop rock, is an earworm ouroboros. Power pop fans (and I am among that number) are fine with this; we just want the hooks to keep coming. Keep ’em coming. Please.

The Coming Collapse, Foxhall Stacks’s first full-length release, is breezy enough and certainly catchy enough to pass muster for most power pop devotees. All of the right elements are here: the overdriven choruses are catchy (“Turntable Exiles,” “Rough Sailors”); the swarm of handclaps and punchy harmony vocals ever-present (“Do It Yesterday”); the acoustic tune is here (“Worried”); so is the punk-ish number (“The Old Me”); oh, and there’s the quasi-psychadelic song (“Failure”); and so on. The Coming Collapse follows the standard power pop template nicely, specifically the late-’80s/early-’90s alternative rock wave (think the Posies, Material Issue, and so on). but the band’s genesis is a little more surprising than the usual mopey-Anglophile-English-major-with-guitar origin story. The band’s members all have impressive resumes, especially in the indelible Washington D.C. hardcore punk and post-hardcore scene. (Between the four: Minor Threat, Government Issue, Wool, Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Bad Religion, Dag Nasty, Velocity Girl, and High Back Chairs, just to name a few.) But a bunch of aging (gracefully!) punks playing catchy guitar pop isn’t that odd, in the grand scheme of things—there’s a lot of overlap with the “punk” and “power pop” Venn diagram sets, when you get down to it.

The thing that breaks the mold here is that The Coming Collapse unrepentantly deals with the ravages of age, both individually and as a society, more than almost any other power pop record I can think of. That sounds more highfalutin than it actually is—the lyrics are often a weak point of the album, with a number of clunky rhyme pairings littering the tunes. The band isn’t trying to pretend they’re decades younger than they are, though, a problem with some legacy power pop acts. Instead, frontman Bill Barbot lets the existential dread seep into the grooves of the record—when you’re worrying about the fabric of your society unraveling, who has time to fret over whether that cute person at the amusement park notices you or not?

While the album leans heavily into songs that skirt around mid-tempo, the rhythm section keeps things moving. Pete Moffett has always been a pocket monster on the kit (see his outstanding with J. Robbins’s post-Jawbox outfit, Burning Airlines, for an example), and that doesn’t change here; he and bassist Brian Baker lock into a groove from the opening lines of “The Reckoning” and maintain it for the next 40 minutes. Jim Spellman’s lead guitar lines provide a nice counterpoint to Barbot’s occasionally angular rhythm guitar parts; while the two don’t have the instrumental chemistry that Barbot had with J. Robbins on the later Jawbox releases, there’s a comfortable vibe on the songs on The Coming Collapse. These are four scene veterans having fun together, and it shows.

Saying The Coming Collapse is “solid” could be interpreted as a backhanded compliment. It’s not. The Coming Collapse is a well-made, tuneful album with little in the way of filler. This last point alone makes it a power pop rarity. But, aside from a handful of excellent songs (“Turntable Exiles,” “Law of Averages,” and “Top of the Pops” really are fantastic tunes), the album is, well, solid. And it doesn’t really need to be anything more, really. Sometimes, singing along to something that’s good enough with your fellow travelers as the world collapses is enough.

Our Rating: 7.7 (Stand Out)

The Coming Collapse is out now on Snappy Little Fingers Quality Audio Recordings.

Review: Petals For Armor I, by Hayley Williams

The results on her debut EP Petals For Armor I are fine, but lackluster.

A Hayley Williams solo release has been in talks since before the world knew Paramore existed.  Her initial recording contract offer was to her as a solo artist, which she famously rejected in favor of being in an alternative rock band.  Despite her intentions, Paramore’s career has been plagued by business drama for the last decade, with very ugly splits involving various founding band members who left on the claim that she was not giving them a fair cut of the proceeds and taking too much credit.  With all of the conflict, perhaps the biggest surprise of Paramore’s career is that it took until 2020 for Hayley Williams to go solo. 

The results on her debut EP Petals For Armor I are fine, but lackluster.  The five songs are produced by Taylor York, long-time member of Paramore, which lends some sonic consistency between Armor and Paramore’s most recent album After Laughter.  The EP begins with the lead single “Simmer,” which manages to do just that and not much else.  Williams shows more vocal restraint than in her previous full-band discography, refraining from her trademark belted choruses.  This is not a bad thing; her delivery is unique as always.  The production is crisp and glistening, with tight beats and muted synths.  It is exciting upon first listen, but does not stick a few moments after.

The real highlight of the EP is “Cinnamon,” which is the most musically abstract song on the track list, featuring the most down-to-earth lyrics.  It opens with a jagged, stuttering beat and earie harmonies from Williams that eventually evolve into an irresistible groove around the halfway mark, before devolving into a sparse bridge.  Lyrically, the song emphasizes the joys of simple home life with the empowering hook, “I’m not lonely, I am free.”  It’s creative, catchy, and oddly comforting. 

Petals For Armor I thrives when it manages to hit on the indie-pop grooves and lush textures, which happens quite often.  Where it suffers is in lack of personality.  Many of these songs sound like they could have been released by a plethora of indie singer-songwriters.  Williams’ lyrics and emo-tinged vocals that have been primarily what has kept Paramore fans dedicated to the band long after the mid-00’s emo scene faded, and gained them lasting respect from many of those in the underground, are strangely lacking.  Perhaps the inevitable Petals For Armor II will shed more light on Williams vision for the project, which at the moment does not feel fully realized.  As a long-time Paramore fan, this is something that is enjoyable and interesting, but lacking the heart that defined Williams’ earlier output.  

Score: 6.3 (Solid)

Release Date: Feb. 6th, 2020

Label: Atlantic Records

For more on our rating scale, see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Review: Vampire Empire by Glowbug

Glowbug has been consistently crafting experimental electronic music for the past decade, and it has been quite a journey. But rather than shift directions entirely, it seems that each album manages to supplement a strong core sound with new elements that makes Glowbug hard to classify. There are elements of chillwave, hip-hop, alt-rock, post-hardcore, chiptune, and so much more at play. Put simply, Glowbug makes synth-pop that packs a punch and will probably appeal to fans of rock more than those of dance music.

At large, the Glowbug discography is patchy. I certainly consider myself a fan, but I’ve always been drawn to a couple songs here and there. Strangely enough, it was 2018’s Weezing, a tropical take on some Weezer classics, that really stood out to me. It was a style that doesn’t have a lot of direct competition, and the use of timpani and brass really gave it a refined edge.

It’s this sound that also serves as the primary base for Vampire Empire. Glowbug augments these elements with everything from Latin piano grooves, sultry falsetto, AWOLNATION-esque screams, and frenetic choruses and the end result is an album that seem more balanced than its predecessors. It’s not without highlight songs (“Love”, “Phantoms”, “Death Wish”, and “Time Bandits” are all exemplary) but the other tracks certainly aren’t far behind.

“Phantoms” feels like the best entry point for the album – while it wasn’t released as a single, it has all the right elements of one. A bassy synth intro bleeds into upbeat horns, cementing a warm feeling that embraces the whole album. The chorus is crazy in all the best ways, mixing one of the most rhythmically-compelling vocal parts of the album with some of the aforementioned screams. It’s also worth noting these screams are very brief and hidden under vocal processing, so you probably wouldn’t find people moshing here.

Lourdes Hernandez of Russian Red once again makes an appearance (“Lucky Me”, “Anatomy Art”) and is strong as always. She’s been featured on several previous Glowbug releases and has become a staple guest. “Anatomy Art” in particular is a groovy beast of a track and Hernandez definitely helps round it out.

Vampire Empire hardly feels like an appropriate title; there’s nothing bleak or foreboding here. Instead, start-to-finish, you’ll find 40 minutes of beachside bangers, shimmering with synths, brass, and Caribbean percussion. It’s the kind of music that perhaps feels out of place for this time of year, given the widespread cold we’re experiencing. But just maybe this is the cure to seasonal depression we’re been looking for.

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: 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: Electric Lunch by Rick Moon

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.

7.0 (Stand-Out)

Released: July 23, 2019
Label: Public Works

Review: Pale Cicada by Makeunder

“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.

8.5 (Best New Music)

Released: June 28, 2019
Label: Good Eye Records