REVIEW: Tall Friend - Safely Nobody's

Tall Friend.jpg

Laura Kerry

Tall Friend’s new album Safely Nobody’s begins with a song called “Mother,” which is a recorded voicemail played over a subdued bass line. The voice addresses Charlie (Pfaff), the driving force behind the trio, through tears: “It’s Mom. Everything will be ok. I love you so much.”  

It’s a striking half-minute recording, as much for the display of unpolished, maternal emotion as for the fact that the band opted to include it in their album. Tall Friend, also comprised of Cale Cuellar and Jesse Paller, describes Safely Nobody’s as “a documentation of me packing up and unboxing many, many years of hurt.” Right at the start of the album, “Mother” makes a promise that it will spare nothing in that documentation.

What follows in the next eight songs, though, unfolds with lightness and beauty. In contrast to the direct and affecting voicemail that haunts the ensuing music, the rest of Tall Friend’s hurts emerge in fragments. The mother returns throughout the album alongside other family members and people not mentioned by name, hinting at what hurts may have inspired it. The mom calls from a hospital to say “happy birthday” in “Oats,” the narrator finds a video of themselves dancing with their father when they were four in “Apoptosis,” and they face the threat of goodbye on “Radio.” Narrated over loose and lo-fi combinations—sometimes delicate, sometimes punchy—of bright guitar, simple bass, and tight, soft drums in songs that last no longer than around two minutes, the stories on Safely Nobody’s are raw but skeletal, and not without sweetness.

Both rawness and sweetness emerge in extremes on Pfaff’s vocals. They primarily sing with a breathy tone that borders on twee, but they darken the edges from time to time. In “72,” the low, psychedelic repetition in the verse offers deeper, huskier tones; the close, foregrounded vocals on “Radio” sound sharp against the dissonant, jittery composition; and on “Apoptosis," Pfaff’s chant-like singing is simultaneously intimate and echoing, like a sorcerer reciting spells in a small cave. Pain—family strife, romantic heartbreak—has the ability to render you childlike in one moment and wise beyond your years in the next. Throughout the album, Tall Friend captures this phenomenon through both the vocals and lyrics (“I have been grown since I was small," they say to their mother on “Oats,” “I'm still little, but what does that mean?” they sing on “Skate Ramp,” and “At playtime, I’m always the doggy” in “KB”).

There’s nothing childlike about Tall Friend’s songwriting, though. Practicing a skill even harder than divulging raw, unfiltered emotion in lyrics, Pfaff manages to capture feeling through poetic insinuation. Safely Nobody’s is filled with diversions and stand-ins. “Natural Things” focuses on the lighting of a match but ends with a self-effacing observation: “You like me / When I'm not so loud.” In “KB”—one of the standouts on the album—their dad “watches storms like he's looking in the mirror / Like if he squints hard enough he'll become the lightning.” The song ebbs and flows through fathers, lightning, myths, playtime, nectarines, and fake praying, but it ends with a punch in the gut: “I love you, could I make it any clearer?”  

In that kind of moment, found throughout Safely Nobody’s, Tall Friend accomplishes exactly what they intend; “I ... know that there are people out there still feeling desolate and unsure of what tomorrow will bring. I hope that these songs will provide a little bit of solace,” Pfaff writes in the album’s notes. Like the best soul-bearing music or a message from a loved one, solace is exactly what Tall Friend brings.

Check out Tall Friend playing "KB" live in the Blue Room here.

REVIEW: Snow Roller - XXL

Kelly Kirwan

Snow Roller are a reincarnation of moody, '90s alternative rock. Their music buzzes with fuzzy guitar feedback the same way an overhead power line buzzes with high-voltage electricity. And it's exactly this kind of suburban imagery and malaise that the band convey not only through nostalgia or genre but also through lyrical concepts. This is the music of growing pains—or, more broadly, of growth itself—and it’s a theme evenly diffused across the Portland-based trio’s sophomore album, XXL

As noted by one of their labels (the band has ties to both Near Mint and Making New Enemies), Snow Roller consciously chose which stories to include on this follow-up venture, and sought to offer closure on some of the chapters from their first album, What's The Score?. To quote Near Mint’s own assessment of the band’s latest 10-track compilation, “Herein lies the spectrum that this Portland three-piece volleys between: slouching and standing up for their own future foibles.” 

Indeed, XXL straddles the line between insightful and indolent. Their vocals are evenly delivered, with a slightly nasal pitch, offering observations that could be interpreted as either deft poeticisms on everyday life, or the verbal equivalent of a shoulder shrug. The album's opening track, "Movie Night," begins with a thrash of a few guitar strums and a line of reverb curving languidly in the background. The drums keep a steady pace as singer Colin Kritz takes us through a night in with someone, watching Die Another Day. The lyrics reflect an inner monologue that skips from unsure and insecure to bored and absentminded: "Feel the tension deep down inside my bones / I miss my Connecticut home and bike paths I spent time on." The song effectively evokes a feeling of estrangement, from both people and places that hold a certain sentimentality.

Then there’s "Bury the Lede," which sees that sentimentality turn into resentment. Kritz begins by speaking of someone in third person ("She ate cheese for dinner again") but quickly turns the narrative into a direct address ("It was a let down, seeing you before you left"). Kritz's anger grows over the course of the song, depicting a significant other who moved away and moved on. It's a quick-footed tune, featuring bright gleams of guitar and crinkling chords along with thumping drums that suit the bitter but defiant tone. It ends with a cutting jab: "When can I begin to pass the time that you gave up?"

XXL plays out like this for much of the album—uncertainty surrounding our place in a relationship, or even our ultimate desires, but delivered with a confidence that almost seems contradictory. It’s not as naive as a coming of age, but falls into a similar category: seeing the world clearly and still feeling confused. Can’t we all relate?

VIDEO PREMIERE: Dakota Blue - Bolo

Kelly Kirwan

Dakota Blue has found a muse in the streets of Los Angeles. Wandering through one particular neighborhood (on foot, a rarity for LA), he absorbed aesthetic influences that would shape his forthcoming album, Rodeo Knife, out this September. "Bolo," his latest single and music video, is a picture of surreal isolation, rife with a subtle sense of foreboding—but more than that, the song is a sultry stunner.

"Bolo" begins with rolling percussion, reminiscent of that Western classic "Rawhide," before being joined by spare guitars and Dakota Blue's hesitant croon. The accompanying video follows the artist as he traipses (sometimes backwards) through empty industrial neighborhoods. We linger over his shadow stretching across the pavement, the footage becoming slightly distorted as it moves into shots of abandoned factories. He wanders these landscapes as a lone observer, like an astronaut exploring the deserted cities of a parallel earth—an effect that's heightened by the use of disorienting overlaid shots. Paired with Dakota Blue's simmering, understated sound, "Bolo" plays like film noir, teasing what promises to be a mesmerizing LP.

REVIEW: Crumb - Locket

Laura Kerry

In their new EP, Locket, Crumb is fixated on escape. “Recently Played” begins in a languid but repetitively catchy melody, a fitting backdrop for vocalist (and guitarist) Lila Ramani to sing about the same two songs stuck in her head and being paralyzed in routine. In “Locket,” she sings, “Need to clear my head and get out of the city / All alone in the jungle you'll find me.” And in the opener, “Plants,” Ramani again wants to flee monotony: “Tell me something sweet / When my day seems so long.”

Locket is itself the kind of escape that its lyrics seek. Counter to the immobility and monotony described in their album, the New York four-piece's music is expansive and breezy. Favoring elements of jazz and psych-rock, Crumb has created a dreamy, spaced-out landscape touching experimentalism but rooted in tight structures and solid musicianship.

On “Plants,” Ramani carries a jazz melody in her smooth and soulful voice over woozy guitars; “Recently Played” shifts from a sparse, ethereal waltz on the verse to a lofty, off-kilter chorus set in outer space; “Thirty-Nine” changes from reverb-soaked guitar arpeggios in the first half to a fuzzier, looser, and meandering psych-rock second half whose bass, organ, and guitar combo resembles The Doors; and “Locket” is built around keys but cycles through a surprising array of instruments—reeds, psychedelic synth, a deep drone. All four songs feel similarly wandering yet tight and grounded. Smooth, dreamy, and with just enough experimentation, Locket is something sweet after a long day.

REVIEW: Lushloss - Asking/Bearing


Laura Kerry

Music usually tells simple stories through small lenses. At most, it uses two voices to convey its messages. There are hidden meanings and vignettes that bleed out beyond the edges of a song, of course, but for the most part, the listener can discover the main frames of reference and through lines. Music tends to favor emotion over narrative complexity.

Lushloss’ Asking/Bearing, on the other hand, manages to emphasize both complexity and emotion. Her debut LP is technically a double album, but it sometimes doesn’t feel like an album at all. In the first part, Asking, the Seattle-based artist (also known as Olive Jun) weaves together dialogue, keys, glitchy hip-hop beats, and heavily processed vocals to form something that sounds part radio diary, part audio art piece, and in what remains, deft electronic pop.

The album begins in that last mode. Starting with a soft piano ballad and a gentle vocal melody saturated with effects, the opener “St Marco” builds to a sparse but crisp beat. As the music starts to fade, though, two voices come in, sputtering and speaking over each other. The conversation settles, revealing the Skype call between Jun and her mom that is the foundation of the rest of the album's first half. After each song in Asking, the dialogue returns, often where it left off. Throughout, the two speak from a geographic distance—Seattle to Korea—and a generational distance, but also with the closeness of mother and child. There are moments of discomfort, like that first one, in which Jun’s mom says her trans daughter’s name from before she transitioned; moments of trying to bridge the divide, like when Jun asks her mom, “When did your dad die?”; and moments of mundane logistics, as when her mother starts to plan the next trip.

It’s a complicated story—as much as any cross-section of life could be called a story—that brings up family history, cultural divisions, illness, and coming out as trans to older family members. In the end, though, it circles around the two checking in on each other. After Jun spends much of the conversation asking her mother questions and supporting her through her own mother’s illness (“I just hope you’re okay,” she says at one point), the final piece of dialogue ends with the mother saying, “You have to be okay until we get together.” It’s a jarringly touching moment, heartbreaking because it’s so intimate and raw.

Between the dialogue, Jun’s music complicates the narrative. Sometimes songs intersect with conversation—“St Marco” and “Sisters” each deal with family relationships, and in “Gutter,” the singer asks, “Have you called your mother today?” Most of it wanders elsewhere, though, suggesting a life lived in parallel to the one we can glimpse in the phone call. “Clark, WA,” a moody, guitar-driven track, seems to tell the story of an imbalanced past relationship; in “Sheet,” a delicate but hopeful-sounding song, Lushloss sings, “I’m so tired of feeling tired today”; and in “Yana (Interlude),” the bridge between Asking and Bearing, Lushloss plays a slightly sped-up recording of a voicemail for a person far away, this time with seemingly romantic overtones.

None of that distracts from the call, which comes to form the central narrative. And neither does the album’s second part. Much more straightforward electronic pop, the five songs on Bearing provide welcome companionship for the reflection required after Asking (and they probably deserve more critical space than sharing a bill with Asking affords them). Asking/Bearing is rife with voices—not just the mother-daughter duet, but the artist’s voice processed to different pitches and tones, tapes of friends speaking, field recordings, electronic and acoustic instruments—that tell separate and intersecting stories. At the end, though, as the beat and bare vocals on “Gymnasium” glitches and fades, Lushloss leaves you with an intimate sense of her as an artist and the intimacy that seeing someone so closely can create.