REVIEW: SMLH - Occoneechee Haunts + Staring Thru The Wall

Raquel Dalarossa

“Precocious” is not a word I like to use, but in Sam Higgins’ case, it’s inescapable. The North Carolina native first started writing music in middle school, using a hand-me-down tape recorder to capture his sounds. At seventeen, he opened up a Bandcamp page and put his fuzzy, droney pop songs out into the world, under the newfound moniker SMLH (initials to his lengthy full name). But with the recent release of his double EP, Occoneechee Haunts + Staring Thru The Wall, Sam Higgins is growing up.

The first side of this cassette (and digital) release, Occoneechee Haunts, consists of seven tracks originally released this past January, though they feel like the soundtrack to hazy, warm months. “Summer Daze,” for one, features super fuzzy vocals amid a jumble of other lo-fi instrumental elements but a bright, acoustic guitar sits atop it all to really drive home the summery sentiment. Higgins’ music can sometimes sound like Ty Segall doing Mac Demarco covers; in particular, third track “Can You Feel It, Like I Feel It (?)” feels like a more conked-out version of Mac’s “Let Her Go.”

As with both Segall and Demarco, Higgins has a penchant for pop, and he too sprinkles his killer melodies with plenty of quirks. “Speak In Tongues (6991),” for one, achieves an irresistible catchiness but is replete with alien touches. Meanwhile, on Side A’s most poignant track, the instrumental “Night Ryder/Occoneechee Haunts,” ambient drones seem to float beside car engine noises. These details make for an intriguing charm in SMLH’s music—something that feels invitingly curious.

Certainly, this offbeat charisma carries over into Side B of the release, Staring Thru The Wall, which was first released in August. But the second EP’s opening song, “Year From Now,” immediately sets this little collection apart from its brother. Higgins’ voice is suddenly much more clear and intelligible, revealing his halfhearted tone as he sings lines like “She says give it a year or two / But it’s been far too many for me,” with a sigh caught in his throat. “Novelty Beat/'Hey You!'” contains plenty of experimental touches, but here they take on a menacing tone. And even as the closing song, “Russian Flashlights,” gives us a glimmer of upbeat, happy instrumentals, Higgins still chooses to wind it down with over five minutes’ worth of sad, slowly fading ambient noise.

With these two EPs placed back to back on his first official, label-backed release (DC’s Babe City Records), the shift in Higgins’ songwriting becomes abundantly clear. There’s a distinct difference in overall tone between the two, which hints at an artistic development well underway. And with Higgins already working on his first full-length, we are left to wonder where his explorations might take him next.