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: “Heard It In A Past Life” by Maggie Rogers

The record is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.

FFO: HAIM, boygenius, Stevie Nicks, “After Laughter-Era” Paramore.

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 too crisp, 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. 

Rating: 7.8 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Release Date: Jan 18, 2019

Label: Capitol Records