Synth Pop

PREMIERE

Monkeybars - Practical Suede

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Gerard Marcus

Synth pop can set you in a dream, suspending you in a brief, hazy reality. Sometimes this is a place of relaxation, and sometimes the lush synths and driving grooves propel your feet off the ground and your fist into the air as you jump along in a state of disoriented bliss. Or maybe that's just me?

"Practical Suede" is right at the center of this synth pop dream space, balancing themes of patience, doubt, and life's most overwhelming experiences with a groove heavy enough to push you through it all. The brainchild of songwriter Eli Aleinkoff, Monkeybars features a cadre of talented artists, including Sahil Ansari on drums and production, James Wyatt on guitar, Peter Wagner on bass, and Aleinkoff himself on vocals, synths, and soprano sax. The song melds synth with creative horn production, stretching traditional synth pop sounds in a fresh direction. And Aleinkoff takes the brass a step further with a blistering soprano sax solo, doing a great job of shredding it while not distracting from the track's groovy vibe. "Practical Suede" makes for a great ending to 2018, and has me looking forward to what Monkeybars have in store for the new year.

PREMIERE

Sun Kin // Miserable chillers - Adoration Room

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Will Shenton

When Kabir Kumar (Sun Kin) and Miguel Gallego (Miserable chillers) first met, they found that they had a lot in common: both were pop musicians, both were first-generation children of immigrants, and both had "fears about making art in a time where a tidal wave of history seems poised to crash down on us." But perhaps the most striking similarity between the artists is the playful sincerity they bring to their songwriting, allowing them to paint optimistic counterpoints to those anxieties. It wasn't long before they became long-distance collaborators, and Adoration Room is a sprawling, occasionally tongue-in-cheek debut for the pair.

Awash in everything from danceable synths to psychedelic guitars, Kumar and Gallego's voices and lyrical styles are naturally complementary. "I keep inviting you to things by accident / I swear this app was made to make me feel bad," Kumar sings on the wonderfully theatrical "Ringing," not long after Gallego gives us the vignette of "I thought of you at the bitcoin exchange / When we split a cab across town to the AMNH" on "Natural History." These little parodies of modern, digital life walk a tragicomic line, simultaneously seeming to mock their ridiculousness and empathize with the narrator. Maybe social media is a dumb thing to stress about, but it doesn't make the anxiety any less real.

Part of the appeal of Adoration Room is its tendency towards nostalgic reference, anchoring its contemporary woes in the comforting styles of the past. Miserable chillers' "Jamie" drips with Bowie-esque melodrama, while Sun Kin channels countless sultry, soulful crooners on opener "Veena." The list of homages and influences is too long to count, and the result is a sort of semi-satirical collage—some of the delivery is definitely goofy, but it's executed with the loving care of musicians who grew up steeped in the sounds they're channeling.

Replete with sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit nods to revolutionary politics ("Adoration, if all the work goes away and we're still / Paying for the leisure of the vain / Be patient, hope the guillotines have not been rent / Help me sharpen blades," Kumar sings on "Teri Ankhen"), the album regularly hints at a more hopeful vision of the future. But no matter how the tension between the socialist clarion call of "Teri Ankhen" and the dystopian, techno-libertarian tableau of "UBI" shakes out, Sun Kin and Miserable chillers are dedicated to at least one immediate material gain: irresistible pop.

Pre-order Adoration Room on Bandcamp, out 7/27

VIDEO PREMIERE: Vansire - That I Miss You

Will Shenton

There's a charming discrepancy between the polished production of Vansire's groovy synth-pop track "That I Miss You" and the DIY goofiness of the video that accompanies it. Tight hooks flow like tides beneath lightly modulated vocals as the duo, Josh Augustin and Sam Winemiller, dance in loosely choreographed deadpan across their hometown of Rochester, MN in matching NASA t-shirts. It's an endearing tableau, but the playful tone and summery melodies belie a more thoughtful undercurrent.

Originally inspired by a nonsensical phrase ("like a Lichtenstein," which Augustin latched onto simply for its alliterative qualities), "That I Miss You" evolved into a meditation on the nature of art and commodification. "Any attempt to make art about relationships or love is, to a certain extent, a stylization of a personal experience for an audience," Augustin explained, going on to say that the track is something of a summation of his mental state since the release of their recent LP Angel Youth. "The original intention was light lyrical fare about a college friend of mine who just transferred, but it ended up being more about the nature of art in general."

That said, the song never collapses beneath the weight of its own navel-gazing. By couching those ruminations in lighthearted (if somewhat bittersweet) pop and garnishing it with some self-deprecating dance moves, Vansire strike a balance that feels substantial and easily digestible at the same time. "That I Miss You" is an infectiously catchy and accessible track, but there's plenty to unpack on subsequent listens.

Catch Vansire on their West Coast Tour this August

Aug. 2 - Voodoo Room - San Diego

Aug. 4 - Bootleg Theater - Los Angeles

Aug. 5 - Daydream Festival - Sacramento

Aug. 6 - Slim's - San Francisco

Aug. 9 - Crocodile - Seattle

Aug. 10 - Mission Theater - Portland

Aug. 11 - China Cloud - Vancouver

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.

PREMIERE: Norty - Alien Eyes

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Phillipe Roberts

“Alien Eyes,” the lead single from Norty’s full-length debut The Years Are Fleeting, begins as a distant echo, a stuttering shimmer of a guitar figure piling on the distorted reverb as it crawls down a long hallway. Listen with your eyes closed and you’d expect to get a face full of indie rock. Instead the Young Heavy Souls producer slams you straight into a glitch-pop drop of sliced-up horns and thick bass. From there, it’s round after round of tasty fusions and juxtapositions on an incisive track masquerading as big-tent dance pop.

Though the message creeps out over the course of multiple listens, “Alien Eyes” is Norty’s attempt to spell out a flavorful missive on the snake-like hypocrisy of mankind’s fixation on profit over people; in his words, calling out the fact that “some humans are just bad at being human.” At its core, however, the track can’t escape the upbeat flair of Norty’s production. Rather than break it down over spare, moody instrumentation, he packs in crunchy bumps to bop those blues away, making it less a call to arms than a nagging voice of political consciousness under the strobing concert lights on the dancefloor.

Still, no matter how high Norty turns up the bass or how hard he drops the beat (and he truly does), the message isn’t far behind. “Alien Eyes” keeps it human by moving your body with playful energy, something worth keeping around as the heat, and the lizard-person madness, ratchets up this summer.