REVIEW: Smalltalker - Talk Small

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Will Shenton

Smalltalker's latest EP, Talk Small, opens with a quiet, distant-sounding jazz-hop groove, casually noodling along and seeming to promise a more demure sound than their previous work. But fifteen seconds in, the track comes into focus with a few bold instrumental hits, fleshing out the atmospheric haze before launching into the lush harmonies of "Wildcard." It's a playful tease to kick off the record, and one that captures the band's easy confidence.

One of the first things you'll notice about Smalltalker is the comparatively huge roster of musicians—ten in the regular lineup, including ThrdCoast's very own Gerard Marcus on trumpet—that gives their smooth, jazzy soul its size. But they don't just rely on walls of sound to bowl you over; every song is meticulously crafted, giving each instrument its own time to shine. The crisp production makes it easy to pick out the constituent parts, leaving the listener plenty to discover on subsequent listens.

Talk Small may be a relatively short EP, but it feels like a fully-formed album. We ride from the wistful melodies of "One Too" to the energetic, danceable highs of "To Choose," before closing with the quiet reminiscences of "Sorry." And with such a density of instrumental and vocal elements throughout, Smalltalker seems to have crammed more into its twenty-minute runtime than most bands do with twice that. It's an impressive feat, and one that will leave you satisfied even as you pine for their full-length debut.

REVIEW: Trees Take Ease - Stevia

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Will Shenton

With Stevia, Trees Take Ease (AKA Brooklyn artist Stephen Becker) has created a world of his own, replete with philosophical musings and surreal diversions. Describing the EP as "a land of mushy songs and rumpled dreams, frozen vegetables and slippery posters, vitamin d and gnarled yarn," Becker defines the impressionistic framework—or lack thereof—that gives his sound such a beguiling character.

Nostalgic and contemplative, each song on Stevia feels equal parts familiar and alien, mirroring an introspective dive into one's own psyche. The lyrics are delivered in sensory fragments, often giving abstract ideas very tactile characteristics. "Love is a concept fading and tough / Like a moon in waning," Becker sings over an upbeat drum kit on "Whole In One," continuing, "Ready or not / I'm a cookie crumbling / Soft / Like a mattress fumbling." It's beautifully vivid nonsense, reveling in absurdity while nonetheless seeming to get at some truth that defies categorization.

The songwriting itself is largely energetic and poppy, but Becker takes countless surprising detours. The hypnotic beat of "See Saw" devolves into an extended off-kilter guitar solo; "Every Inch" blends squeaky-clean synths with lackadaisical, lo-fi vocals; "Same Old" is a propulsive, hazy pop-rocker steeped in sunshine; and closer "Stephen" mirrors the opener in runtime and its dissolution into washed-out atmospherics. There's a throughline, to be sure, but these subtle changes in direction make for a riveting listen.

Never content to take things at face value, Trees Take Ease resists easy definitions. "Less is not more," Becker chants on "See Saw," pushing back against the platitude and carving a space for his work outside the mundane. While Stevia is relatively short, it's certainly not minimalist. Dense with both sounds and ideas, it declares an uncharacteristically straightforward thesis: maybe more is more.

REVIEW: Palberta - Roach Goin' Down

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Phillipe Roberts

Palberta announce their presence with a screeching “We’re Palbertaaaaa!” in the closing third of Roach Goin’ Down, delivering a clunky, bass-heavy hip-hop beat sprinkled with blips of detuned guitar. Like a professional wrestler playing their entrance song just before delivering that perfectly choreographed pile-driving finisher, the move would feel anti-climatic and awkward if it wasn’t so characteristically them to ignore any conventional order of operations while spitting on your expectations. Live, the trio switch instruments almost as fast as they leap between ideas, a would-be performance gimmick that illuminates just how damn singular their approaches are behind the kit and in front of an amp. On the strength of showmanship and increasingly bizarre songcraft, Palberta has become a bit of an open-secret sensation, but Roach Goin’ Down is their strongest argument yet for blowing the doors wide open.

For all of those individual qualities and instrumental quirks, what makes Roach Goin’ Down such a big leap over its predecessors is how accomplished they’ve become at fusing them into a seamless—albeit slightly prickly—whole. Highlight track “In My Fame - Jug!” is ruthlessly efficient with melodies. Its first section is a pile-on of scraggly guitar, bass chords, and splashing percussion, ricocheting off each other in a thrilling chain-reaction explosion. As it glides to earth to start part two, soft guitar strums carve a path onwards—not towards a conclusion, but a circular conversation that fades gradually into the distance, a sound they explore again on “Jumping From Lamp to Lamp,” with an added dose of sprightly loneliness.

Indeed, despite the textural and tonal grit that Palberta are fond of, the outright poppiness of punk tracks like “Big Time” sound almost too smooth to be the work of a noise (or noise-inclined, if you will) band—until they tear it off like a BandAid in the last few seconds with a howling sax solo. The titular chanting in “Cherry Baby” cleaves through the wonky pulsing of horns and bass around it, detuned to its surroundings but perfectly preserved in an airtight bubble that’ll keep you humming it for days. Palberta have always performed this delicate balancing act, but these snippets of hypnotic warmth have never sounded so deliberate, even if they come packaged with an equally fierce punchline.

Roach Goin’ Down’s cover art features the visages Ani Ivry-Block, Lily Konigsberg, and Nina Ryser whipped into a single slimy heap, differentiated only by glasses, teeth, and hair, in a real case of blended identity that mirrors the album. Unless you see them perform the songs live, it’s nearly impossible to tell who wrote or played what part. And somehow, the longer you listen to Roach Goin’ Down, or allow yourself to be taken in by the wacky, impulsive construct that is Palberta, the less you feel the violent urge to deconstruct and divide that gooey whole into something piecemeal. If you need things to make microscopic sense, don’t listen to this album. If you want to hear Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” transfigured into a Rage Against the Machine-style basher, exposed for the bloated corpse of a track it was by way of annihilation, you may have found your record of the year.

REVIEW: Sam Evian - You, Forever

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Will Shenton

Sam Evian's new LP, You, Forever, opens with a defiant statement that seems to underpin every following track: "I don't care / I don't care anymore / Not like before." The playfully titled "IDGAF" unfolds like a resolute love song, declaring the singer's intent to reunite with a partner, past indiscretions be damned. But in a twist that goes on to contextualize the whole album, the "you" Evian wants to run back to isn't a lover—it's himself.

There's a foundation of rambling Americana throughout You, Forever that recalls the whirlwind tour that inspired the record. "Country" is probably the most on-the-nose example ("Hold on tighter to me baby / Don't let go / We've got miles and miles of country / Before we're home"), but foot-tapping standout "Now I Feel It" conjures similar vignettes ("At night I'd fly down country roads and flip the lights off under the stars").

Finding oneself on the lonesome road isn't exactly a novel theme, but it's one Evian executes with aplomb. The energy and style of You, Forever ebbs and flows in a capricious stream of consciousness, darting from wistful, dreamy folk to infectious, upbeat pop and back at the drop of a hat. The introspective longing of "IDGAF" gives way to the dancey psych-pop of "Where Did You Go?," which in turn begets the crunchy ballad "Health Machine." It's a beautiful structure that mirror's the artist's vivid internal life.

You, Forever is an excellent follow-up to 2016's Premium in every way. Evian's keen songwriting instincts have always been there, but his latest work feels like a more thoughtful and fully realized collection. And perhaps most importantly, his hooks are as subtly irresistible as ever, threading the needle between summer hit machine and contemplative odyssey and making it look easy.

VIDEO PREMIERE: MAH KEE OH - Uppercut

Will Shenton

MAH KEE OH's new single, "Uppercut," is an exercise in freeform projection. Grahm Robinson, the Denton, TX multi-instrumentalist behind the moniker, combines his signature washed-out guitars and hazy vocals with a DIY collage of faces that give rise to a hundred little stop-motion narratives and vignettes. According to the artist, it was inspired by feelings of aimless confusion, and he succeeds in channeling those into a sort of audiovisual Rorschach test.

"Uppercut" is a mesmerizing track, taken from MAH KEE OH's forthcoming EP, Shoplifting Can Get You Killed. It's nostalgic on every level, from the slacker-rock sound to the mid-century magazine cutouts, and I'm reminded of a somewhat sludgier version of Oakland songwriter Perhapsy. The instruments are so deeply layered that any one of them coming to the forefront manages to surprise, and yet each voice is still discernible on a close enough listen.

Delightfully ambiguous, "Uppercut" is a refreshing detour into a world where concrete interpretations don't really matter. It's okay to feel lost, and sometimes our most indiscriminate wanderings give rise to our most beautiful ideas. We're excited to see where MAH KEE OH goes from here.