review

TRACK REVIEW: Pastel - close

pastel.jpg

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.

REVIEW: Anna St. Louis - First Songs

anna.jpg

Laura Kerry

Anna St. Louis grew up in Kansas city, studied art in Philadelphia, and moved to Los Angeles to pursue music. The singer-songwriter incorporates each leg of the journey into her understatedly lush debut, First Songs, filtering a solid foundation of folk and country through the lens of Philly weirdness and LA cool.

For an album that essentially spans an entire country, though, First Songs is surprisingly pared down. Armed with a guitar (sometimes electric and sometimes acoustic), an expressively warm voice, and the sparing support of bass, percussion, and a few other instruments, St. Louis does a lot with a little. Emerging from recordings done in the bedroom where she also taught herself guitar, the songs on this album reflect the intimacy of their origin. But they also radiate with a sense of openness, not only revealing the four walls of St. Louis’ room but also the California sunshine that glows off of them and, perhaps, the exciting possibilities that it can inspire.

Not that First Songs is bright-eyed in the inexperienced sense; in fact, many of the songs borrow the feeling of world-weariness common in folk and country. In “Wind-Up,” the opener, a simple song that builds around bluesy repetitions, she sings, “I wanted to find the secret of this place / But I’m sitting here and it’s getting late.” In “Mercy,” a subdued track with psychedelic guitar lines that swirl over a low guitar drone, she poses a relationship as the sharing of troubles, singing, “I have burden / I’d like to lay / At your pillow / Could I stay?” In “Fire,” the gorgeous closer with a Nick Drake-like fingerpicking pattern, St. Louis croons a series of wishes that signal both a time of trouble and a glimmer of hope: “Honey, let your fire be okay.” Even the song called “Sun,” with its bright acoustic guitar and pretty vocal harmonies, contains its share of sadness.

Though many of the songs on the album hint at these kinds of stories, they tend to deal more in feelings than narratives. St. Louis’ lyrics, often snapshots of images or emotions, are equal measures evocative and mysterious (perhaps it’s a holdover from her days singing in punk bands). The result is an album that, despite being straightforward in its compositions, also feels slightly eerie and off-kilter, like there’s something hiding under the surface. A hard sensation to achieve with songs so sparse, that feeling—along with the sheer beauty of the music—deserves some dedicated listening time and a reminder to look out for where St. Louis ends up next.

REVIEW: Twain - Rare Feeling

Phillipe Roberts

Blessed with a honeyed voice that overpowers even the bitterest sorrows, twain singer Mt. Davidson probably gives one hell of pep talk. Rare Feeling, the latest offering from the alt-country outfit, gets under your skin with an unflinching optimism that, if it didn’t feel so hard-won or well intentioned, might come off as forced. But like a best friend poking at your ribs until you see the brighter side, or an angel on your shoulder pointing you towards the high road, Davidson and co. deliver a rambling, feel-good sermon of a record. As the seasons turn towards introspection, twain make a golden case for turning your heart outwards.

Tucked away in the middle of the record, the central thesis of Rare Feeling rings out like a glass-half-full plea for hope: “Life won’t last long / For those who hate it / For those who love it / It lingers on like a dream.” The song in question is “Freed From Doubt,” a rose-tinted reverie of a solitary smoke break given over to Zen-like brooding. It's the album’s shortest track but nevertheless serves as a kind of mission statement, pulling the overarching lyrical themes of gratitude and acceptance to the fore. Front to back, Davidson sings like a man reborn from the ashes, alternating between yearning for spiritual guidance (“Rare feeling / Visit me and set my mind at ease” on the title track) and celebrating the wondrous now (“Lay down with / The beauties of this earthly world / I think they want to lay down with you” on "Solar Pilgrim"). Combined with a voice that can smoothly shift gears from delicate cooing into commanding operatics on a dime, it's quite a potent formula.

As for arrangements, “Freed From Doubt” provides further illumination. A lovely guitar figure, reminiscent of the work of electronic folk maestro Bibio, plods along, knitting itself around Davidson’s charming melody like warm thread. Sparse but jaunty drums bumble around underneath, buoyed by a bass that snuggles up close to the guitars and doesn’t let go. The majority of the record takes a similar form. On "Black Chair," a piano occasionally creeps in to heighten the tense drama of romantic loss, while on “Good Old Friend (For Charlie)," flutes breeze by to serve the song’s majestic beauty, but overall, the band tends to hang back, happy to let Davidson lead the proceedings. When they leap out to the front on the slow-churning confessional “Rare Feelings v. 2,” the piled-on distortion achieves a stunning effect.  You can practically see the sweat dripping down Davidson’s face as the church walls melt down around him.

Wearing these gospel influences like a badge of honor, Rare Feeling finds its surest footing when submerged in the hymnal qualities that elevate its country blues to the level of soul-breaking catharsis. As the lights dim on the shuffling chant of “I’m never going down / Even if they all pass me by” on closer “Good Old Friend,” it seems like the track could and should go on forever. Davidson's voice dissipates into the ether but the chant snowballs into a defiant, angelic chorus. It's exactly the kind of moment of muted thunder that keeps you coming back for a shoulder to lean on.

REVIEW: Birthing Hips - Urge to Merge

hips.jpg

Phillipe Roberts

Leave it to Birthing Hips—a band that’s spent its brief but brilliant lifespan aggressively hacking away at their instruments in search of the latest channel for their absurdist wit—to announce their new record and their demise on the same day. Heartbreaking as it is, it’s somehow fitting that their two-year run would end on such a bittersweet juxtaposition. Their songs are thrilling, violent collisions between contradictory forces, the musical equivalent of a crash test (minus the airbags and seatbelts, of course). Even on stage, you could sense the giddiness radiating off of them as they sent the heads of their devoted audiences flying. For those lucky enough to have witnessed Birthing Hips’ rare, comet-like journey through the universe, as well as those who might have missed the memo, their NNA Tapes debut, Urge to Merge, is as close to a perfect parting gift as they come. Theatrical, uncompromising, frighteningly technical, and majestic, it documents the fierce, innovative spirit of the Boston quartet at the very height of their prowess.

By the time their first, self-released tape came into being, Birthing Hips had long-since planted themselves in bold territory. The aptly titled No Sorry was an unapologetic noise-pop rampage, alternating between winking bubblegum hooks and blocky, dissonant breakdowns. But the newer tracks in their live repertoire had a tempered directness, compacting their ferocious capacity for rocking out into tightly coordinated passages while showcasing an expanded theatricality, courtesy of vocalist Carrie Furniss. Urge to Merge features renditions of these tracks that shimmer with a meticulous, well-deserved clarity that highlights both their technical skills and their easy accessibility.

“I Want This Place Impeccable” magnifies the daily drama between a messy roommate (deadpanned to excellent comedic effect by guitarist/vocalist Wendy Eisenberg) and her clean-freak counterpart (played by Furniss with just the right amount of screechy mortification) into a multi-part epic. Funnier and funkier than ever, it’s sure to bust your gut as much from the campy exchanges (“Why don’t I just roll you across the floor and drag your schlubby ass across the dust?”) as from the bone-shattering fills between them from drummer Owen Liza, who strikes a crisp compromise between Brian Chippendale’s frantic sticking and John Bonham’s classic rock stomp.

Make no mistake, the Hips are still firmly locked into noise-rock mode here; these songs tend towards the frayed and frenetic, like on “Shut Up and Leave Me Alone,” where Furniss reclaims her righteous anger “even though I am Midwestern” alongside a jazzy, aquatic groove. “Internet,” meanwhile, features Furniss freaking out in stuttered vocalizations of “You’re ruining, ruining, ruining, ruining, ruining my life!” over titanic riffs that sound like a partially melted Led Zeppelin record. Even when they do drift into calmer waters, the other, heavier shoe is never far from dropping. Closing track “A Wish” is probably the quietest Birthing Hips piece yet, but for all of its '50s pop trappings, they can’t resist a skyward climb into a shrieking post-rock meltdown.

At their very best, Birthing Hips danced with glee on the knife edge between madness and inspired tunefulness, and Urge to Merge delivers both in spades. But even with the coda to their hysterical surrealism in our hands, making peace with and sense of the fractured “defective pop” brilliance that they created is a long time coming.

REVIEW: Mini Dresses - Mini Dresses

dress.jpg

Laura Kerry

Mini Dresses have put out several EPs and tapes of reverb-soaked dream pop since their start in 2012, but now they're releasing their full-length debut. The eponymous album comes after a couple of years of hard work, collaboration, and, apparently, a fair share of struggle. For a collection with so much poured into it, the result is surprisingly restrained. Mini Dresses subscribes to the less-is-more formula, featuring ten clear and spacious songs that subtly shift through different genres and sounds.

Throughout the album, the Boston-based trio create crisp little stories designed to transport and charm the pants off of the listener. In the past, Mini Dresses have built hazy soundscapes that sweep the listener into fuzzy daydreams. In Mini Dresses, the band lose some of the haziness but maintain the fantasy. In fact, fantasy is their frequent subject. It emerges, for example, in the question repeated in “Are You Real," or in the evocative metaphor in “You’re a Statue Standing in the Rain.”

Though less hazy, Mini Dresses still manage to convey that whimsy through their sound, too. At different moments, they borrow from various time periods and resemble different artists who excel at some form of escapism or reverie. The opener, “Emily,” with its tale of a woman who moves from her “parents’ home in Connecticut,” contains shades of Belle & Sebastian. “Fantasy Nails," meanwhile, with its bright guitar and lilting voice, forms a heartwarming and catchy melody that recalls the early, seafaring days of Tennis. The uptempo “Everywhere I Go” journeys back to the ‘80s in a contemporary time machine. Other songs, such as “Hands Down” and “Hired Gun,” pulse with their own breed of fantasy.

Despite its dreaminess, though, the most prominent forces on Mini Dresses are the very real instrumental and vocal talents. Propelling the album are its meticulous sounds, primarily the guitar and voice. Though each track uses mostly the same combination of drums, bass, guitar, light synth, and vocals, Mini Dresses find incredible shades within their palette. Singer Lira Mondal’s voice is more dulcet than powerful, but she finds a wide emotional range from song to song. It is strong and clear in the leaping melody on “Are You Real,” gentle, loose, and a touch twee on “Post Office Girl,” and soulful and close on “Hired Gun” and “Division.” Equally expressive is the guitar, which dances around the vocal melodies throughout the album in hooky riffs played in varying warm tones.

Opting for these understated but deliberate variations, Mini Dresses’ first full length is a testament to the fact that it takes more work to pare down than it does to expand. The pleasure in the album—besides the hooks and the fantasies and the sheer charm of it—comes from recognizing the intricacies hiding in all that space.