In the sea of anonymous releases on Bandcamp, the dream is always to find a legitimately great band that you never would have heard of otherwise. It rarely happens, because there is such a saturation of music writing and critics/bloggers are eager to jump on anything that might appeal to more than five people, but sometimes a band like Desert Liminal slips through the cracks. Their recent release, Static Thick, is among my favorite albums (cassettes?) of 2017, even though it hasn’t reached many listeners.
But that’s enough reveling in obscurity. I listened to a lot of music this year, and Static Thick stood out because it has such a distinct vibe, a lot of which comes from Sarah Jane Quillin’s vocals. She has a husky voice (think Fiona Apple and Cat Power range) and sings with a bit of a drawl that adds to the disorienting, blurry nature of her songs, which explore gray areas sonically and thematically. She plays keys with various effects while Rob Logan handles drums, and the sound is about as minimalist and lo-fi as you would expect from a duo with a self-released Bandcamp record. Sometimes these bands I find on Bandcamp can sound like they’re missing something, or are still working out the kinks, but I wouldn’t change a thing about Desert Liminal’s sound, which is full and rich despite the minimal set-up.
I’m always curious to see how bands describe their sound, especially if it resists easy categorization like this one, and Desert Liminal’s are particularly entertaining: “dreamed up sike rok for high-functioning depressives” and “30 yr old woman falls in love with distortion pedals.” Both strike me as fairly accurate. The pedals and Quillin’s vocals do give the music a hazy, dreamy vibe, and the music is naturally downbeat, almost to the point of being narcotic. This fits with Quillin’s lyrics, which are gloomy and ambiguous like great poetry. There are clear themes of loss and grief, like on “Sun Limina,” but a lot of it is left open for interpretation.
The band I kept thinking of while listening to Desert Limina was another Chicago duo I was obsessed with recently: Algebra Suicide, which had a similar duo approach and a focus on dark poetry backed by minimalist music. That band was a little more lyrically driven than Desert Liminal, and had talking instead of singing, but they both create moody and powerful songs with very simple parts. And also like that band, part of why I like Static Thick is that it’s a welcome respite from overproduced music that sounds too eager to please as many listeners as possible. This is smart, challenging music that packs surprising potency in its low-key presentation.