Pastel

TRACK REVIEW: Pastel - close

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Raquel Dalarossa

Valentine’s Day isn’t a particularly exciting holiday for most people, but it is usually, at the very least, a great day for music lovers. Today, we’re gifted a sensual and intimate one-off single, appropriately titled "close," from Pastel.

Pastel is the musical moniker for the Los Angeles-based artist Gabriel Brenner, who last year released the crushing conceptual EP absent, just dust. Now, Brenner is resurrecting the sound that we found on his earlier work—including 2016’s Bone-Weary and 2014’s It Will Be Missed—delicately blending R&B with a bit of bedroom electronic pop.

“close” feels like a painter back at his easel, employing some of his favorite techniques in better-than-ever fashion. It’s a minimalistic track with a steady pulse like a heartbeat, anchoring Brenner’s voice. Sparse instrumentation—plinking piano keys and a scintillating guitar—adorns the space around his hushed, honeyed vocals, and he layers each sound with a care and consideration that's almost audible itself. Many of the lyrics are sung under his breath—a perfect fit for the quiet thoughts and internal observations that he’s giving voice to. But he gains volume and confidence when, in the chorus, he strips away all the sonic ornaments to ask: “Do you think about my body? Do you think about my skin?” And a wave of sound and emotion breaks through the cool exterior as the questions leave his lips.

The song portrays the exquisite feeling of infatuation so tenderly that you can’t help falling in love with it. Catch Pastel at this year’s SXSW Festival in March.

PREMIERE: Pastel - absent, just dust

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Raquel Dalarossa

Rare is the five-track EP that manages to execute a concept from start to finish with as much depth of feeling and clarity as absent, just dust. Through the course of this collection, we feel lost. Waves of terror crash down on us. A woman reads a poem.

That woman is Gabriel Brenner’s grandmother, and her reflections are a temporary salve of comfort amidst the sea of anguish and anxiety that is Brenner’s latest EP as Pastel. And this is unlike anything he has ever done before under that moniker. Where there were pop-leaning beats and vocal structures in his earlier EPs—Bone-Weary from 2016 and It Will Be Missed from 2014—here, on this self-released parcel, there is negative space and jarring sonic experimentation. Brenner has made a sharp turn off of Pastel’s presumed path forward, but the difference in style is a consequence only of the central subject matter: absent, just dust lays bare his “complicated relationship” (per the artist) with his Native ancestry, and his experiences within and without that culture.

A soft and slow piano melody kicks off the EP; it sounds distant yet inviting, until halfway through the song it turns into an ominous one-note repetition, and then begins to unravel into unpleasant white noise. “Raze” suddenly makes sense as the title for this track when the noise begins to engulf you, ripping your insides out. At its peak, it is honestly tough to listen to, which speaks to its success in extracting a visceral emotional response from the listener—this is what trauma feels like.

The third track, “silhouette,” is the first where vocals come into play. They’re hazy and far away at first, but seem to come closer and more into focus as the song progresses, like a growing confidence in the words that are being sung. Those words are mostly indistinct, and you don’t have to parse out the lyrics to understand the feeling of misplacement; but, the words certainly help drive the point home (“The skin doesn’t lay quite right, does it?”) and the explicit calling out of historical cultural erasure shouldn’t be overlooked: “I look and I look / But the books don’t say a thing.”

The centerpiece of the collection is his grandmother’s poem, introduced in the EP’s fourth track, “braid.” She seems to identify herself as “Cherokee, for sure” and, as she says, “I think Patowatomie but I’m not sure.” This sort of fuzziness around identity is a central motif, from the album’s artwork to individual moments in the music, like the beginning of “silhouette” where we hear a muffled voice speaking as if through a dense, muting fog. There is loss in this, but there is also a sense of community through that loss, and his grandmother’s words convey this sentiment quite beautifully: “We travel these paths twisting, circling, weaving / And as we look back at the intricate design, we are woven in our travels / We see that our differences need not separate us.”

The last track is, perhaps, an attempt to “look back,” as chant-like and staccato vocals begin to layer over themselves and over a deep, reverberating thump, coming together in an unsure sort of hymn. It begins to gain its footing just before the track ends, going out on an eerie, almost despairing note. And that’s how the EP ends: without ever finding a resolution or any sense of healing.

It is a powerful artistic choice on the part of Gabriel Brenner. But what's most powerful about absent, just dust is that it lends a voice to a people precisely by expressing their voicelessness.

TRACK REVIEW: Pastel - I Ache

With a title like "I Ache," you could probably guess going in that Pastel's newest single is pretty thoroughly steeped in melodrama. It's an absolutely gorgeous melodrama, though, and one that is so convincingly sincere that it's easy to get sucked in.

This is the first track from Pastel's upcoming EP Bone-Weary, which is due out sometime early this year. It blends elements of R&B, dream pop, and ambient electronics that are irresistibly smooth, and when the vocals come in after about a minute and a half ("It's so hard to be stable / When the hold that I cling to is not") there's a bit of a retro-devotional, Twin Shadow-esque vibe.

"I Ache" is broken into three parts: an intro comprised mostly of soft synths and choral voices, a middle section that serves as something of a verse, and a finale that spends the last two minutes releasing a subtle—but nonetheless powerful—explosion of sound. It's a song that you can get lost in, replete with broad, painterly instrumental strokes and a sense of scope that seems greater than its runtime.

Needless to say, we're looking forward to this new EP.