REVIEW: Brenda's Friend - House Down

Laura Kerry

Brenda’s Friend circles around the chemistry of its two members, Amy Oelsner and Erin Tobey. Both Bloomington, Indiana–based women have solo musical endeavors that span from folk to punk, and they formed a band out of their mutual admiration for each others’ work. As a duo, Oelsner and Tobey create music that calls on all of their collective genres and weave a full sound from their duet of intertwining voices and guitars.

Their new album, House Down, is a testament to how well they wield that two-part formula. Starting with the title track and opener, Oelsner and Tobey play off of each other over a grinding, distorted guitar that sets the rhythm as much as the muted percussion does. Starting with an overlapping call-and-response and ending in unison on the chorus, their tough-girl sound recalls female-led alternative rock of the ‘90s and early 2000s, landing somewhere between Bikini Kill and early Rilo Kiley.

Brenda’s Friend stays in a fuzzy, grunge-infused space for most of the first half of the album. Though the second track, “Sponge,” has a more subdued guitar part, the lyric, “I don’t want to stay at the bottom of the pond / Don't want to lick up all that scum,” is scuzzy enough to make the whole song feel delightfully grimy. “Who Who” returns to the louder guitar of “House Down,” adding a vibrant surf-rock riff in between punkish vocal melodies sung together in octaves.

The expectation built by three songs crumbles completely with “Pas De Deux.” As its name suggests, the song—the second single released by Brenda’s Friend—lilts and twirls in a warm dance. The guitars lose most of their distortion, replaced by a clear, repeating riff punctuated by a second instrument that plays cascading scales. Though it is a dance for two, “Pas De Deux” also adds a third important member to the mix: a cello player who contributes some gravity and lushness with the low hum of his strings. Still, though, it's the duet that drives the song. Here, Oelsner and Tobey show softer, sweeter sides of their voices, dipping into quieter falsettos that echo, harmonize, and merge on the song’s repeated question: why?

Some of the sweetness of “Pas De Deux” lingers in the final two songs of the album. On “Horoscope,” the duo enters the territory of twee, making a bright summer jam of a song that claims, “Someone said summer is coming.” A surprising twist in the main guitar chord progression, however, bars it from complete dulcet cheer; these are still the people who brandished those aggressive, fuzzy guitars a mere two songs ago. They remind us of that even more on the final tune, “Navy Beach,” a good song for a sunny Fourth of July among a seedy crew whose patriotism is most readily visible in “the spread eagle on the sailor's tattoo.” Again, they add a third member to play drums, and the result is an explosive end—the grand finale to House Down’s fireworks show. Short and sometimes scuzzy, sometimes sweet, the album pops and crackles for six satisfying songs before it fades out.