VIDEO PREMIERE: Slow Dakota - The Lilac Bush

Will Shenton

Slow Dakota's latest video, an accompaniment for 2015's "The Lilac Bush," is almost meditative in its structure. As the song's breathy flutes begin their dance, we open on a series of gorgeous natural scenes: a woman's legs as she walks down a forest path, a field of lilacs, and a monarch butterfly alighting on one of its blossoms. Director Britta Lee, better known for her portraiture and botanical photos, has translated her visual style into a cinematography that feels both deeply alive and removed from the normal passage of time.

Lyrically, "The Lilac Bush" is a song that recalls an abortive suicide attempt: "I put my chin inside / A mouth of knotted rope / But instead of stopping / My heart began to fly / A dove perched on my shoulder / And whispered in my ear / 'Each day God comes home / With lilacs from His bush / He picks them all for you / His chosen darkling thrush!'" Like much of The Ascension of Slow Dakota, it grapples with artist PJ Sauerteig's sometimes desperate clinging to faith and love in the face of depression and self-loathing. In this case, it was a brief, revelatory moment that saved his life.

The video seems to be a visual interpretation of that hallucinatory respite. It features the director and her 9-year-old sister (perhaps the same person at different points in her life) exploring what the artist describes as a "sort of Midwestern Eden." Overflowing with serenely vibrant life, it serves as a foil to the bleakness of the lyrics, and one that captures the dove's reassuring message: there is love in this world, and beauty, and you belong among all of it.

REVIEW: Reptaliens - FM-2030

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Laura Kerry

The origin story of Reptaliens is also a love story. Cole and Bambi Browning met on the shoot of a music video in Portland, where the band is based. After six months of dating, they married “under a blanket of smoke from the season’s forest fires.”

Such a romantic start reflects in the music that they write as a duo and perform with the help of other Oregon musicians (Julian Kowalski, Bryson Hansen, and Tyler Vergian). On FM-2030, their full-length debut, the Brownings have created a breezy indie-pop collection filled with dreamy synths, jangly guitars, and catchy melodies. Bambi sings of love many times throughout the album, in lyrics such as “You know only I can see you girl” in “Nunya,” “Touch me / You can touch me” on “Dreaming,” and “Maybe I’ll fall in love” on “666Bus.” This is a starry-eyed sound.

Or so it seems.

In addition to love and marriage, Reptaliens draw from much stranger influences. As evidenced by an album named for a transhumanist philosopher, scattered references to Philip K. Dick novels, and their own name, the band has a thing for the weird, the paranormal, and the fringe. All of that emerges in subtle touches that lurk behind the sunny pop: flourishes of spacey synths and sound effects (“29 Palms,” “Butter Slime,” “Forced Entry”), psychedelic swirls of guitar (“Simulation”), and off-kilter, shifting time signatures (also “Simulation”). And while Bambi’s voice is pretty and sweet, it also sounds haunting, often seeming to be at a distance, detached or abstracted with effects. Many times, the instrumental voices overtake it.

And all of those loving lyrics mentioned above? They’re complicated. In “Nunya,” the subject imagines an unspoken relationship between him and the famous woman he stalks (“Come closer, baby / Look into my camera, girl”), a story told through increasingly creepy lyrics and the slow, sneaking march of the song. In “Dreaming,” the invitation to touch is for someone dreaming about her (when she “cannot say no”). In “666Bus,” the vision of falling in love is actually a vision of death: “Maybe I’ll get hit by a bus / While I was dreaming of falling in love / Or maybe I’ll fall in love / And die of a broken heart.”

Only in FM-2030 could you find a song about Satan and his demons wrapped up in plucky, West African-influenced arpeggios, shuffling percussion, a bouncy bassline, and a hook of a melody. And nowhere else could you find that next to a stalker song, a track called “Butter Slime,” a dreamy track about dreaming, and a song based on a story about psychic people living on the moon. Reptaliens is a match made in heaven—or rather, in outer space.

PREMIERE: Indo Dhans - Who You Kiddin?

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Phillipe Roberts

Bouncing off the walls in manic fits of self-discovery, Indo Dhans’ “Who You Kiddin?” is a hyperactive cocktail of looped hysteria. Though Brama Sukarma, a San Jose native with roots in ska and classical music, is a recent transplant to Brooklyn, his first foray into pop composition traffics in deep nostalgia, hopping on grainy 16-bit synthesizers to evoke a world that’s more Green Hill Zone than Greenpoint. It’s a cozy retreat into the refuge of a simpler time, and a suitable vantage from which to skewer the “fake it till you make it” fatalism that’s been nipping at his heels.

Built off ricocheting chords, the track gracefully sidesteps the maximalist urge to saturate the mix with melody; cartoonish embellishments cling to the edges without fully overtaking Sukarma’s half-rapped vocal ramblings on hand-to-mouth madness, detuning and diving into a carefree oblivion like a heavily sedated Dan Deacon coasting through an existential crisis. The beats thrumming beneath it all are simple, effective, but danceable—the track powers through peaks and valleys on the back of its percussion. Save your energy for the track’s crescendo, a flurry of electrified shouts ramping up in intensity before washing out to sea all too soon, carrying you with it. Far from a rose-tinted journey into memory, “Who You Kidding” takes joy in walking backwards, stumbling heels-first into an uncertain future with lighthearted whimsy, arriving at that mythical hard-won peace with paper-chasing anxiety and a smile still on its face.

REVIEW: Zula - 6 Passes

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Laura Kerry

When the band Zula gets compared to other groups, it’s often in terms of Frankensteinian mashups: Battles mixed with Radiohead with a touch of Coldplay plus some Grizzly Bear. At a certain point, a list of comparisons begins to point more towards what a band doesn’t sound like than what it does. In Zula’s case, that is most music.

In the New York–based band’s new EP, 6 Passes, Zula does what they’ve done best in last year's full-length, Grasshopper, and previous EPs: craft a unique and kaleidoscopic breed of psychedelic pop that is simultaneously abstract and plugged in. Their new album is both a response to the current time we live in and an escape from it. Songs like the opener, “Anything For You,” could be the anthem of the news this week (or exactly a year ago—think Access Hollywood—or many times before that). According to Henry Terepka, one of the two cousins who founded the band, “The lyrics were inspired by white-male domination as embodied, experienced, and witnessed in private homes, on college campuses, and in seats of power.” Zula conveys their message cleverly, though, wrapping it up in coded lyrics over shimmering, dense instrumental voices and a crisp beat, saving the strongest words for the refrain: “She doesn’t have to be anything for you.”

If other songs contain heavy ideas, they similarly abstract them, both in the lyrics and sonically. “Unmistakable,” led by Noga Shefi playing a lively bassline and uptempo percussion, lands somewhere between danceable-yet-strange disco and funk; “Try It” is warm, funky, and soulful; the sax in “City World” lends the song the exuberant energy of jazz; “All Except” escalates with each dynamic spurt of added instruments; and “Breathe In” builds an urgent march of groovy guitar, bouncing bass, and tight vocal harmonies. All of 6 Passes has a propulsive movement, driving forward crisply and clearly despite its complicated arrangements.

Coexisting with the danceable grooves and dynamic movement, though, is a sense of anxiety. Sometimes Zula incites uneasiness through haunting repetition—such as the lingering single chord at the center of “City World” or the guitar riff throughout “Breathe In”; other times, they do it by thwarting expectations, as in the uneven measures in “City World,” the dark turn on the bridge in “Unmistakable,” and the surprising bursts of Hannah Epperson's violin on “Anything For You.” While the lyrics take some time to decipher, they do suggest disquiet—apparent, among other places, in the repetition of the instruction to “breathe in,” both in the song of that title and in “Try It.”

In 6 Passes, Zula is equal parts cathartic, nervous, confounding, captivating, thought-provoking, and dance-inducing. And in the midst of balancing such a complicated formula, they’ve managed to land in a rare sweet spot, in which the listener will gain equal satisfaction from spending a little time and energy on the music as they will from spending a lot.

PREMIERE: Slow Dakota - Rumspringa EP

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Will Shenton

Slow Dakota's sophomore release, Rumspringa, begins on a characteristically aspirational note: "When I'm free / When I leave the city / When I'm free / Then I'll wake up early / I'll tend the rocky fields on the hill / I'll serve the basil in my windowsill." The lyrics are familiar to anyone who's ever dreamt of escape to a more idyllic life, and the way we tend to insist upon plans when we're least certain that we'll actually follow through.

It's a sentiment that fits with the EP's title—a reference to the Amish rite of passage in which adolescents are allowed to explore the outside world—as well as its sound. Mastered by the legendary Greg Calbi (known for his work on countless classic records, from Lennon to Bowie to Talking Heads), Rumspringa is a decidedly more polished album than last year's The Ascension of Slow Dakota. The songwriting is approachable, pop-sensible, and thoroughly fun to listen to, but thankfully manages this evolution without losing any of artist P.J. Sauerteig's distinctively raw delivery, nor the sense of humanizing self-doubt that permeates his work.

Each track on the EP is named for a different whimsical character, with most (if not all—I'm no master of Midwestern geography) referencing a city or state. Titles like "Abram Indiana," "Elijah Yoder," "Cherry Mary Michigan," and "Jebediah Iowa" all drive home that this work is as much about place as it is about personal experience. The names are hybrids of biblical Americana, seemingly entwining Sauerteig's own explorations of religious faith with broader questions of identity and the ever-changing definition of "home" (he even split the recording between his home state of Indiana and his adoptive New York). If we leave and decide to return, what are we coming back to?

Rumspringa is a fitting title for Slow Dakota's relatively short diversion into explicitly pop songwriting; like its namesake, it seems to represent both indulgence and experimentation, but also a subtle, almost reflexive quality of clinging to the familiar. Whether Sauerteig will return to his more avant-garde roots or continue down this infectious rabbit hole remains to be seen. Either way, it's bound to be compelling.