Single Review: Starship Emo - "(side a)"

Starship Emo - "(side a)"
(2017 Self-Released)

Cincinnati's a humble city, littered with the quirks and charms of any good metropolitan era, yet too insecure about its own draws to tout them. It's where the Reds -- the country's first-ever professional baseball team -- have called home since 1846, rooting themselves so firmly into local culture that Opening Day is considered an unofficial city holiday. It's where "ghost signs" -- advertisements from the 30s and 40s painted onto brick architecture that have faded into spectral obscurity -- haunt urban decay like attractive birthmarks. It's where natives swear by noodles, hot-dog chili, and shredded cheddar cheese, all layered together in the same bowl.  It's where -- for whatever reason -- most folks care more about where you went to high school than what you did afterward. 

Cincinnati, Ohio is an emo city. It's the emo city. It's wrapped up in its own, personal nostalgia, one that seems impenetrable to outsiders -- the sort of history one can take pride in, but can't extol without having to explain why they put chili on noodles or what they find so compelling about a ball club that hasn't won a world series in 27 years. The truth isn't self-evident, and neither is Midwestern emo. It's complex, introspective, and pretty, once you've entered the proper state of mind.

Starship Emo's grimy lo-fi soundscapes peel from brick like withering paint. They're their hometown's distilled spirit, wired through an old Casio and pummeled with 808 kicks. The duo's latest single, "(side a)", is a hip-hop cut as fresh and unassuming as the morning's cool haze of condensation and avian chatter. Keyboard chords stretch out their creaking limbs across the muffled thump of low-pass filtered percussion -- each snare hits with the force of a thrown pillow. This is music to hit snooze to, cool and inviting as laundered bedsheets beneath the AC unit. 

Jacob Miller's distorted vocals top the beat like fondant, likely powdered with a tasteful pinch of autotune. The gloomy blend of mumbled melodies and crackling production borrows cues from both Teen Suicide's "haunt me" and Ski Mask the Slump God's "Gone", trimming each down to its most whispery elements. What remains is a hieroglyphic impression of sound -- not a ghost sign, but a ghost song. "Don't hate me", pleads Miller, more out of habit than in a fit of passion. Those words stretch out across the factory's weathered siding, once splayed in vibrant orange, now wilted. The phrase spans the windshield of your car just long enough to register, marinating in your head. By the end of your commute, they too will fade into the memory of a tune worth replaying -- a landscape snapshot of the city skyline. 


Review: Jannen Hengentuotteet - "Huonoa Duuria"

Jannen Hengentuotteet - Huonoa Duuria
(2017 Hulina)

A good portion of my current music intake comes in short bursts. When online streaming platforms like Soundcloud and Apple Music are your main resources for finding and consuming music, it's easy to treat individual songs like tiny serving-sized boxes of cereal lined on the grocery store's shelf: you expect them to court your palate with eye-catching cover art and promises of flavors primed to hijack your levels of serotonin and dopamine. While sound can't carry the sugar or artificial sweeteners that a miniature box of Golden Grahams can, it can draw potential listeners in with abbreviated track lengths and repetitive structures. When plucking tunes from their albums and shuffling them into playlists is the norm, there isn't always room for subtlety or patience -- acts all over the creative spectrum like Alex G, Playboi Carti, and Quarterbacks are all excellent examples of artists that create bold, brief and memorable tunes that explore unique textures while keeping things concise. 

I don't think that's a bad thing, though. I like the ability to hop from one idea to another at a moment's notice. Stirring several genres into a single listening session helps keep my ears fresh, and often lets me make unexpected connections and comparisons as a reviewer. Just like convenience food, easy access to music is comfy and readily available, but, in the end, it's still best to incorporate more wholesome options into your diet too, as I've learned over the past week. 

I finally earned my driver's license on Tuesday, and have been taking the opportunity to re-visit some old cassettes with the help of my station wagon's deck, letting full albums play as I drive to work. There's something freeing about spending fifteen minutes isolated in a two-ton exoskeleton with only the company of a good record. It's making me appreciate lengthy pieces of music again: post-rock jams, cohesive concept works, compilations, and just about anything that challenges my attention span. 

Jannen Hengentuotteet's new 38-minute single, Huonoa Duuria ("Bad Major Key" in Finnish), is a release perfect for long drives, and I'm tempted to make my own cassette version of it if the project's label doesn't plan to do so. Pasted together with a fluttering hi-hat rhythm, the tune traverses its dense weaves of guitaristry as effortlessly as cars seem to glide across the interstate while percussive breaks in the road's yellow dividing line punctuate the drive. 

The record makes its Krautrock influences known from the start. Twangy, drawn-out chords are draped over an off-kilter beat before a few staccato riffs knit them in place. The guitar is joined by translucent keyboards, lavished on the arrangement with little restraint. Here, it resembles a chopped and clumsily re-assembled version of Mac Demarco's "Chamber of Reflection", saturated with watery tones. Maybe we're not driving at all, but actually waterskiing on a crest of reverb.

As Huonoa Duuria works its way into a more danceable groove, the keys lend their echoing jackets of residue to the guitars, which begin to sound as jazzy as they do shoegazey. This is, in my opinion, the composition's strongest movement, pulling the key elements of Hengentuottet's sound together while never holding to firmly to form. Though much of the record is likely improvised, Huonoa Duuria never feels like the work of a "jam band". It's a bit closer to the post-rock of Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, minus the grandiosity. 

That's what makes the record so listenable: despite its lofty ambition, Huonoa remains pleasant, focused, and humble throughout, even as it devolves into a folk-rock dronescape and then eventually into an amorphous blob of dissonant strings. It isn't until the last few minutes of the piece that Hengentuotteet reaches its climax, slowly coating its tense piano rolls with horns, synths, and theremin squeals. Though it takes a full 37 minutes for Huonoa Duuria to blossom into something vast and hard-hitting, it's the process of getting there that makes it worth the price of admission. Next time you're on a road trip, leave this playing on the aux cord -- this is a record best played in the background, lulling you into complacence before gripping you with a dramatic tonal shift. 


Single Review: Sleepwalk - "Shine // Vertigo Zoom"

Sleepwalk - Shine // Vertigo Zoom
(2017 Emma's House)

Sleepwalk's label may be named after a particularly influential single by The Field Mice, but their new virtual 7" single released by Mexico-based Emma's House Records bears only a slight resemblance to their rodent forebears. Listening to the Chicagoan quartet's latest work is like experiencing "Emma's House" on an IMAX screen, headrest titled back with a greasy bag of popcorn at the ready.

A-side "Shine" opens humbly, pitting a filtered rhythm guitar against a needle-sharp thread of feedback that primes the listener for the amplification to come. The stray screech of fuzz becomes more unstable as it travels, tumbling and vibrating like a firework set to burst before ushering in a fat bassline, stadium-rock percussion, and proto-grunge riffage bendy enough to have been used on Yuck's debut record.

"Shine" is the sort of track -- like Swervedriver's "Duel" or Ride's "Vapor Trail" -- that shares shoegaze's love for spacious, dreamy chord progressions and driving rhythms, but sheds some of its distortion to hatch into a punchier, more hummable sound. Sleepwalk's towering melodies can stand on their own without copious amounts of reverb to prop them up. It isn't until a flange effect throttles the band's guitars two-thirds of the way into "Shine" that the pedalboard's role becomes noticeable, but the textural transition still melts seamlessly into Ryan Davis' repeated plea to "say no" to dwelling on the past. Sleepwalk borrows sonic cues from the nineties, but they return them in better condition than they were left: well-mastered and streamlined to pop structure.

B-side "Vertigo Zoom" is more of a slow climb than its predecessor. An infectious lead riff hopscotches across tom drums and kicks, leaving room for Davis to whisper atop gurgles of bass. It's like a juiced-up version of DIIV's "Oshin": here, Sleepwalk builds up confectionery harmonies, and melts them down around the meat of a whirling chorus. While "Shine" is powered by twinkly aggression, "Vertigo Zoom" runs on psychedelic energy. Together, the two sides nearly span shoegaze's boundaries and then some. Shine // Vertigo Zoom is a record that explores its full potential while still staying tethered to its roots. 


Review: Playlab - "lastleg"

Playlab - lastleg
(2017 Self-Released)

No matter what search engine is at your disposal, the keyword "Playlab" will fetch a predictably trendy lineup of digital-age concepts. Your query might gather a non-profit program meant to teach youngsters to code, or perhaps it'll lead you to the parodically-sparse homepage of a trendy New York creative firm that has -- among other things -- released a collection of photos cleverly titled Friendzone that captures football players in greyscale embrace. There's also a Bangkok-based mobile app developer with this same name, cranking out cutely-designed, pay-to-play Candy Crush clones. 

These three examples are just the tip of the cybernetic iceberg. "Playlab" is the sort of vague, jargony phrase that sits comfortably among the grandiose lingo of other uniformly sleek tech startups. It's practically begging to be plastered in Helvetica font on a small office in a gentrified cranny of the city, sharing the block with a craft brewery, or maybe a bicycle repair store. 

It's an aesthetic prophesied by Jeff Koons' 2001 exhibition EasyFun Ethereal, (note esp. the quirky portmanteau of a title), lampooned by PC Music, and deconstructed by the Cincinnati drum-and-bass outfit whose name I've spent the last couple paragraphs discussing. Playlab's lastleg LP exists on the raw, gutter-punk outskirts of the 'corporate techno-minimalist' ethos pioneered by Apple and appropriated by countless imitators. The record's synth textures are as squeaky as latex and often rounded at the edges for safety -- the sounds used here are IDM's equivalent to toy pianos and plinks of xylophone. Rattled off at inhuman speeds, these primary-colored tones scramble to form pointillist harmonies diluted only by their squelchy canvas of trashed snared and gabber kicks. 

Much of lastleg plays like an SNES game scored by Aaron Dilloway. At the album's best, Playlab whisks its arrangements with free-jazz rhythms: cuts like "Mouse Love" and "midipet ver0 jam 2" do this best, violently sending stray flecks of instrumentation splattering onto the kitchen countertop with little regard for tidiness. Despite its sugary components, the music seeks to make a ferocious mess of itself, producing peals of grating noise that emerge from their simulated dust cloud. Playlab's arrangements may do battle, but their combat is limited to cartoon violence. Fun is always at the forefront.

lastleg's latter half contains a few attempts at traditional songcraft. Pop single "I Put it All Online" is a dissonant new-wave groove indebted to both Ariel Pink and David Lynch, pairing text-to-speech software with flailing 808s and throaty keyboards that threaten to implode between each iteration of the titular chorus. "Can You Hear Me?" employs a variety of artificial voices to body its constantly-evolving beat, which slyly transitions from happy hardcore to footwork to trap.

This isn't the kind of release meant for listeners to return to for comfort's sake. It's more or less the tree you're not to overlook the forest of Playlab's discography for. Like Guided by Voices, CHXPO or Lil B, the project's overwhelming stream of output is just as big a draw as the content itself. With around 100 tracks dropped over the past 30 days, the best way to enjoy Playlab is to dive in headfirst, sifting through the roughage to uncover nuggets of improvised brilliance. 


Double Feature: Foliage - "Silence" // Beach Fossils - "Somersault"

Foliage - "Dare"
(2017 Spirit Goth)

If it weren't for their Bandcamp bio, it'd be easy to assume that Foliage frontman Manuel Joseph Walker lived somewhere in London or Manchester, circa 1980. Spiking Another Sunny Day's jangle-pop gloom with the tense punk shuffle of The Clash's "Lost in the Supermarket", the San Bernadino-based solo act's latest single, "Dare" synthesizes the best sounds to emerge from Britain during the decade-long Thatcher-era. Walker has stripped away much of the reverb that saturated his 2015 debut record, Truths, filling in the empty space with distressed kick drums and meatier bass. Backed by melodica and an uncredited vocalist, he feels as indebted to My So Called Life's soundtrack as he does to Wild Nothing -- there's something vaguely folky that possesses the sustained "oooohs" snaking through the new track, adding flesh to the more skeletal compositions of their earlier work.

Beach Fossils - Somersault
(2017 Bayonet)

The discography of Brooklyn's Beach Fossils (who, until recently, I assumed had disbanded) has taken a similar turn for the tidier. Their fourth LP, Somersault, is the band's first release in as many years, representing an exodus from their former cakes of movie-theater buttered beach pop. It's lighter fare, consisting of their usual layered, staccato riffs -- only here, they're lightly salted with hints of smooth jazz and 70s soft rock, intensifying their flavor instead of drowning it. Somersault is a tasteful outing, proving that for better or for worse, Beach Fossils have aged alongside the fans who've closely followed their 8-year adolescence.

"Tangerine" is an early sign of evolution. Featuring a wispy verse sung by Slowdive's Rachel Goswell, the band's guitars take an unexpected backseat to Jack Doyle Smith's loping basslines and the occasional splatter of strings. Where Beach Fossils once resembled the early hardcore hustle of Descendents -- their walls of trebly fuzz shoved along by blast-beats -- they could now be mistaken for the Byrds, glistening with Paisley-patterned psychedelia. "Closer Everywhere" nearly eschews six-stringed instruments altogether, opting instead for harpsichord and melty threads of baroque orchestration. As much as I'm loath to make a comparison to The Beatles, I'd be lying if I said the track doesn't evoke the backmasked intro to "I Am the Walrus", tightly winding screwball harmonies about a barely-there rhythm section. 

"Rise" guides Somersault into totally unfamiliar territory, cloaking a spoken word verse by cloud-rapper Cities Aviv in washes of Rhodes piano and saxophone. Out of context it sounds like a jarring sonic swerve, yet sandwiched between the Real Estate riffage of "May 1st" and "Sugar", a downtempo shoegaze tune, it makes for a seamless transition that's one of the record's most replayable moments. 

Despite a couple tracks that fall short of Beach Fossils' usual standard, like the anemic "Down the Line" (which is redeemed by the verse "I really hate your poetry", delivered with frontman Payseur's uniformly breezy disinterest), the band has returned with a record original enough to shake off their countless Bandcamp imitators while staying true to their effortless pop ethos. The aptly-titled "That's All for Now" caps things off with Somersault's best offering. It's a compositional nod to the trio's self-titled debut, polishing its daydreamed vocals and sun-bleached melodies. A few concluding licks of country-crossover slide guitar hold the door for listeners, as if to promise more surprise experimentation in the future. 

For a band that's been silent for four years, Beach Fossils sound fresher than ever.


Review: L Bosco - (demos)

L Bosco - (demos)
(2017 Self-Released)

L Bosco's humble collection of demos may have been released quietly to Bandcamp without as much as a link to social media or a back catalog of material for context, but that's not to say that the Guadalajara-based shoegazer's debut release is an understated effort. The four instrumentals that make up the EP are constructed with cinematic scale in mind, piling hefty post-rock riffs atop spacey Peter Gabriel soundscapes. 

Slowly emerging from the Oxford Blue haze of a hollowed-out drum machine loop and slide guitar, "Prelude" beams filmy searchlights of guitar, their glow revealing the silhouette of a massive ocean liner creeping towards the listener. It's the sort of tense climate Robin Guthrie might create in his post-Cocteau Twins career: implying a greater, more solid sense of magnitude while working exclusively with misty textures. As acidic droplets of guitar slide down Bosco's lens - streaking and forming tinny globules - one can feel this ominous figure moving more clearly into frame before slinking back into the depths, leaving just clattering drums in its wake. Like many of my favorite post-rock acts, L Bosco hints at crescendos that never come. He forces you to take note of each compositional nuance, prepping your nervous system for the endorphin rush held in front of you like the proverbial carrot, a tidal rhythm section settling for the role of stick. 

"Piensas" deconstructs the Scottish drone of Mogwai and The Twilight Sad, piping warm mumbles into a cloud of delayed guitar pluckings and muddied analog synth. It's humidity clinging to the hair of your forearms, hanging heavy as you push through the summer heat like walking through the swimming pool.

"v nus" is the outlier of the bunch, whisking spirals of digital arpeggiation into IDM soundscapes. With a couple breakbeats thrown on top of it, the 7-minute track might fit snugly into a compilation curated by The Worst Label. On its own, it feels like the theme music meant to accompany a dystopian skyline. Or maybe it's the background music to a futuristic puzzle game sold on the App Store. Whatever image it conjures in your mind, "v nus" radiates equal parts bleakness and wonder. It's as evocative as Kraftwerk, but perhaps more indebted to 80s new-age music.

Outro cut "The T I/O scene" is a composite of all the sounds L Bosco toys with on this demo tape, and it's the most solid of the four. Fizzy snares stumble against sizzling guitar distortion, coalescing in pools of smooth jazz reflection. The tape as a whole feels more like a mirror than a picture -- passively created for active listening. Bosco keeps his art minimal so that you can apply your own vision to it. (demos) evolves alongside you.