Review: Valerie Kao - "Home"

Valerie Kao - Home
(2017 Self-Released)

My friend John's recent re-discovery of Beach Fossils and a particularly Spector-ian haul at the Northside Record Fair have left me nostalgic for the opaque fuzz-punk of early 2010s acts like Crocodiles, Dum Dum Girls, and Blank Dogs. Like most successful artistic communities, the turn of the 21st century's garage-rock rock revival sprouted forth from an accessible, easy-to-replicate sound: reverb-soaked power chords, primitive lead guitar melodies and ghostly vocals cloaked in instrumental residue. Projects were distinguished by subtle aesthetic differences rather than their songcraft. For fledgling indie bands in the era dominated by Burger Records and Captured Tracks, cover artwork fonts and small tweaks to the settings of effects pedals asserted their significance over lyrical content. Think Bandcamp's vaporwave scene or the glut of melodic trap-rap flooding your Soundcloud feed. Simplicity and homogeneity breed mass participation.

That's why it's so refreshing to see California's Valerie Kao emulating the scene's sound post-buzz. Her debut LP, Home, which chronologically documents her progress learning to play guitar, culls the Polaroid-filtered drone of Vivian Girls and injects it with more contemporary production techniques. Thunderous bass riffs charge their way through thick layers of haze like icebreaker ships, leaving jagged trails to be filled with the trickle of echoing vocals. Kao's cluttered pairings of woolen textures produce a surprisingly wide array of sounds, from the traditionally surfy "Home" and "Coming Clean" to the more hypnagogic thrusts of "Rusted" and "Patience". The tunes that fall under the latter category are Home's strongest offerings. "2102" shot-puts its hefty shoegaze chords with an intentional limp, stumbling over its own snares while "Rusted" turns dissonant corkscrews around kick drums with the same sinister energy that powered My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything.

Though, at times, Home is rough around the edges - sprinkled with odd mixes and claustrophobic guitar arrangements - Valerie Kao's new offering hurdles its obstacles with sheer ambition. Always striving to outdo itself, the record is not just a testament to learning a new skill. It is a push to challenge one's self creatively: to always move forward while looking to tried-and-true aesthetics for inspiration.