On “Shimmering Basset,” The Green Child Create Mysterious, Evocative Pop

The thin line between subtlety and impenetrability is explored to great effect on The Green Child’s Shimmering Basset. It’s the second album for the duo of Raven Mahon and Mikey Young, who keep a very low profile: no social media, very little promotion, and their music is in a quiet, beguiling psychedelic style that doesn’t necessarily grab attention, but leaves listeners with plenty to think about and few sure answers. All I really know about this album’s background is that Mahon moved to Australia to live with Young, and they recorded Shimmering Basset together in a new home studio, which might be why it feels a little more focused and cohesive than their initial long-distance collaborations. The retro-futuristic sound they explored on their debut, with the 80s synths and 60s guitars, is still on display, but it’s honed into concise pop gems that are simultaneously challenging and pleasant to listen to.

Mahon’s big move drives a lot of these songs thematically, rooting Shimmering Basset in a more domestic form of psychedelia that they also showed on their single earlier this year, “New Dungeon.” While it is hard to understand a lot of her lyrics, the sound tells the story, and every moment on the album is underpinned with a sense of wonder from someone who is in a new place and is noticing all of these little differences around her. Songs like “Low Desk/High Shelf” and “The Installation” give the feeling of someone in a new home, spotting all of the odd quirks of its décor and falling into a daydream while staring at them. The genius of The Green Child’s music is in its ability to turn something like a bland household item into a portal through time.

In the same way Mahon finds wonder in these familiar items, the duo takes sounds everyone has heard before and turns them into something that feels new and remarkably evocative. “Fashion Light” opens the album with a first half that is somewhat traditional synth pop, but it grows into a stirring conclusion featuring a twinkling synth part, Mahon’s saxophone, and the refrain of “I’ll try to know it” — a good proxy for the experience of listening to this album and trying to figure it out. “Tony Bandana” is the band’s version of an up-tempo rock song, with a twangy guitar part that could have been on album by the Byrds and an earwormy chorus. The woozy instrumental second half of “Health Farm” transports the listener with an eerie synth solo, and it’s another case of the band creating as much intrigue as possible out of simple parts.

Shimmering Basset is about the closest a band has come to replicating what made me so obsessed with Trish Keenan and Broadcast. These are unassuming songs with simple, vague lyrics, but when the quirky sounds are combined with Mahon’s voice, they open up a whole world that is fun and addictive to explore. This album is also an antidote to so much music that is performatively sad and depressing. There is a real sense of joy and imagination in these songs, which feel like the product of two people who have chemistry and enjoy making art together while discovering new sounds and ideas. That part is clear to me, even if everything else on Shimmering Basset is a hazy mystery.

Election Update: Joe Biden is Going to Win, but Let’s All Vote For Him Anyways

It’s been another normal few weeks in this presidential campaign, starting with the exhilarating first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In front of a captivated audience of millions, the two put on a clinic of political maneuvering and gamesmanship that us politics obsessives (or “wonks,” as I often refer to myself) will remember fondly for years. It was a privilege to watch the two most qualified people for president make beautiful music with each other, and as I watched each persuasively make their case for the office, I couldn’t help but feel like I missed an opportunity by not pursuing a career in politics. “This,” I thought, “is something I want to be a part of.” It was impossible to watch and not feel a deep sense of pride in our country, and watching the debate made me want to give back, which is why I’m writing this insightful politics post.

The so-called experts on CNN afterwards called it a “shitshow” and “a dumpster fire inside of a trainwreck,” but don’t listen to them. They are just unqualified talking heads who don’t understand the intricacies of high-level politics like Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and I do. While the debate was received poorly by those ignoramuses, I suspect in the future those same people will celebrate it as a landmark moment in politics, similar to Radiohead’s initially misunderstood classic album Kid A (which coincidentally just had its 20th anniversary, something I wish more people were writing about).

Unfortunately, after his inspiring debate performance, our president contracted COVID-19 somehow, news that got me in such a state of despair that I had to listen to songs like “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang and “Dancing in the Streets” by Martha and the Vandellas to try to salvage my mood. And yes, I’ll admit that during this time, I may have done some research into the expected fatality rate of people in Trump’s age group, but it was solely out of curiosity. I would never wish for our president to die because that just isn’t the kind of person I am.

Our beloved leader continues to trail by a large margin in the polls, a deficit that only increased after his avant-garde debate performance apparently turned off many voters. This is in line with my original prognostication and argument, which is that Trump, contrary to public opinion (at least at the time) is actually a comically easy candidate to beat. This is a president whose polling numbers decreased after he contracted a deadly virus. That’s the level he’s working at. When the leader of this country had a potentially fatal illness, the reaction of the majority of Americans was “yeah, he probably deserves to die.” I haven’t researched this fully, but I can’t imagine that historically correlates with success in elections.

The debate and COVID reaction illustrate why I’m voting for Joe Biden and am probably happier to do it than the average person: beyond simply politics, Trump is a corrosive public figure who brings out the worst in everybody on a moral/spiritual level. We shouldn’t be in a position where many of us hope the president dies and eagerly anticipate his funeral (again, I didn’t do this and never would, but I know of people who did). Politics has always been nasty and polarized to a degree, but I’d be surprised if it has ever been this bad when you factor in Fox News, the internet, and Trump’s personal behavior. While obviously Trump and his supporters are the driving source of toxicity, I’m also tired of the hysterical wing of the left, which frantically loses their mind over every action the president does, even when it’s clearly driven only by his own ego/stupidity and not by any kind of political scheming.

Just like many mistake Trump for an effective campaigner because he beat Hillary Clinton one time, they also overrate his ability as a political operative. I keep seeing talk that he could rig the election or refuse to give up power and I just don’t understand how anyone could think Trump is capable of that kind of action. Maybe it is easier to think he’s an expert con-man because it retains some myth of meritocracy, but the reality is that a lot of our country has been duped by a two-bit salesman who is barely aware of his own surroundings. When Trump loses badly, which is where I think this election is going, he’ll probably be annoying and a jackass, but I don’t see any reason to think he’ll be able to keep his grip on power and pull off some kind of coup.

So, I’m looking forward to this Election Day because it’ll be satisfying to see Trump lose and to have a hand in throwing him out of office. I strongly encourage others to do the same, though I understand that nobody enjoys being told who to vote for and this is a sore subject for many leftists. Biden isn’t perfect by any means, but I still don’t think there’s ever been a bigger difference between the two candidates and this will likely be the easiest vote of my entire life. I’m struggling to see how this decision is difficult for others, especially if you purport to care at all about other people, but I guess that’s their business — I’m not going to try to sway anyone politically since I know it’s a waste of time.

It’s possible I’m too much of a realist and don’t have big enough expectations for politicians. I don’t see voting as some grand act of democracy where the candidate needs to “earn” my vote with policies I 100% agree with. I’m going to drive to a local high school, fill out some bubbles for the candidates I think are the least ruinous, get a sticker, and then move on with the rest of my day. I’m not signing my soul over to Joe Biden, or even showing complete approval of him. But in the unideal world we live in where the majority of people clearly don’t share a lot of my political views, I’m fine making a simple and obvious altruistic choice. A Biden win won’t fix everything, or probably even most things, but it’ll certainly make day-to-day life better than it is right now for the vast majority of people.

Thoughts on Widowspeak’s “Plum” and The Nature of Success

Molly Hamilton of Widowspeak wrote an interesting article for The Talkhouse about her experience as a musician who is currently unemployed and job-hunting while reckoning with what the notion of “success” means for an artist at her level. Widowspeak is in a position a lot of bands I’ve liked for a long time find themselves in: they are successful in the sense that they have an audience, and their music is getting out there to a degree, but they also aren’t gaining massive critical acclaim or hitting huge levels of popularity. Now that the band is 10 years and five albums deep, it’s also hard to see them gaining much more momentum. There’s an endless churn of new artists who are perceived as more exciting than this band, and they’re the ones who will be the target of any kind of hype.

Her article strikes a balance of honestly articulating her plight without it devolving into self-pity. Hamilton doesn’t feel like she’s owed anything, but at the same time, it’s easy to relate to her struggle as someone who puts her heart into this band while not really profiting or getting high praise from the most influential tastemakers. Some of Hamilton’s thoughts, both in this article and on the band’s Twitter account, informed my writing about Taylor Swift’s album — just the frustration I feel that a rich celebrity can pretend to be indie and she gets all the love and excitement from the people who are supposed to be supporting artists like Hamilton, who is instead job-hunting and pondering whether it’s worth continuing to make music. And of course, for every band like Widowspeak that makes it this long and is able to put out a few albums, you can imagine how many talented artists have to quit because it’s just not economically feasible to be in a band.

I relate to this band on a much more micro level: I’ve put a lot of what could be considered “work” into this blog, for basically nothing in return except a feeling of pride I get when I write something I feel is particularly good or when I look back and see how much I’ve improved. I’m past the point where I can cling to some fantasy that this is going to “take off” and I’m ever going to really connect with a real readership. Writing this has meant confronting the awkward reality that no one really cares what I think, and that the kind of music writing I enjoy producing and reading is not a remotely marketable or profitable enterprise (also, that I’m probably not very good at it). So I’ve moved to mostly finding internal validation and doing the best I can, but of course there are times where it’s like “why bother.” Notably, posts like this about a band like Widowspeak are basically the blog equivalent of ratings poison. If it’s not a hot take, or about an artist a ton of people know, it usually ends up disappearing into the echo chamber void. Like Hamilton, I’m not delusional about the broad appeal of writing some mediocre posts about obscure music, but it’s still hard not to be frustrated at the general state of the industry, which is so celebrity-driven and often seems to punish thoughtful, worthwhile work.

I realize this is rather meandering, and anyone who’s made it this far is like “talk about the music, already, no wonder nobody reads this” but all of this is cooked into Widowspeak’s new album, Plum. Like all albums by this band, it’s in a well-defined country/shoegaze zone, with the pleasant reverbed guitar from Robert Earl Thomas and Hamilton’s vocals, which remain honey-sweet and the main appeal of the band. In some respects, Widowspeak are a victim of their own consistency: their sound has never evolved on the surface, and they aren’t outwardly ambitious, which makes their music somewhat unexciting. But the band has quietly made consecutive albums (Expect Their Best was one I loved in 2017) that smartly use that sound to their advantage, with lyrics that can sneak up on listeners who are lulled in by their gorgeous sound.

Hamilton has said she wanted to write more directly on this album, and the songs on Plum are straight-forward, conveying her anxieties about work and life in a way that is relatable because she is putting her feelings out there so honestly. “Breadwinner” (which I already covered when it was released as a single) and “Money” each deal with the notions of success mentioned in her article, and the difficulty of trying to profit in this environment while staying true to yourself. The sharpest song is probably “The Good Ones,” which has a darker sound and is a blunt reflection on privilege and feeling like you should be thankful for what you have, even as you desire more. The chorus, “you’re one of the good ones,” is a familiar reassuring line a lot of people tell themselves, and it shows the self-awareness that runs through this album.

Like I mentioned in the “Breadwinner” post, this album serves as a case study for why there is still a difference between true indie artists and pop celebrities, regardless of what the “music is music” crowd wants to say. Plum is effective in part because Hamilton’s lyrics are real and come from actual experience, and that also makes her singing more moving. I don’t necessarily need to directly relate to everything I listen to, or entertain the possibility that the artists would be friends with me or are similar to me, but there is feeling in this music that can’t be constructed.

Nothing on Plum is too challenging or adventurous (listen to that No Joy album if you want that), but in typical Widowspeak form, it’s music that is satisfying to listen to because it’s such a well-realized version of their cozy little niche. While Hamilton’s lyrics contain a lot of self-doubt, the actual sound of the band is self-assured. After so many years together, Widowspeak at this point know who they are, and while that might not make them super-exciting or popular, they continue to succeed on their own terms.