Donnie Felton and Brian Hall have been to the brink and back. The multi-instrumentalists (and original duo) behind Philadelphia based outfit Grubby Little Hands have been marked by respective near-death experiences—both literally and figuratively. For Hall, it was a 12-inch hunting knife to the abdomen, delivered at random by an absolute stranger. For Felton, it was a brutal attack by a group of young men that mistook him for someone else. It was these instances of violence that not only inspired individual songs on their latest album, Garden Party, but fueled the LP's overall theme of existential angst. It's anxiety drenched in hazy psych-pop and surf rock melodies—and it's good.
Branching out from their two-man status, Felton and Hall enlisted the likes of Joseph Primavera (on guitar) and Chad Brown (on drums) to flesh out their sound. The result is a record that focuses on braiding guitar and synth, while tight-knit rhythms act as the rudder. Garden Party is like the Wilhelm scream re-imagined in a paisley print; there's something sinister beneath the surface, but it's alluring rather than off-putting. Because, if you're going to ruminate on the "ever-looming-but-never-arriving imminent doom of civilization that pervades 21st century mass media and internet culture" (their words), you're going to need a melody that doubles as a sedative.
On their track "Michael," Felton revisits the night he was jumped, the lyrics an even drawl over spacey synth: "Michael, whatever happened to your face / Do you remember / I had mine rearranged." It's a song that falls on the softer side of rock, playing like an open letter to the person Felton was unlucky enough to resemble. Even as the music and vocals swell, there's never an abrasive touch to the track itself—instead, it's earnest and vulnerable. Grubby Little Hands seems too preoccupied with the shadowy what-ifs that haunt human existence to entertain an overt grudge.
Take, for example, "No Such Thing," which bops along like a true child of '60s California beach-rock. Their vocals are vaguely nasal, and the guitar-drum interplay is mostly sunny with short dips into distortion. It's cheery, at least on the surface layer, and catchy enough to bring back the swim as a dance move at your next summer blowout. "Things we've heard of / And things we've seen / Things we've made up / And everything in between," they lull, drawing a theme of perception contrasting with reality. They quickly (and infectiously) continue, "Come on / We won't be here very long / There's no such thing as doing it wrong."
And this is just the beginning. Garden Party is jam-packed with metaphors and philosophical musings on the afterlife, and it still has a crisp runtime of just over 30 minutes. Grubby Little Hands has a dreamy touch that subtly tugs at our anxieties while keeping us hooked on its bubblegum sensibilities. It's like crossing the poppy fields in Oz—beautiful, a touch foreboding, and utterly irresistible.