Peel Dream Magazine’s greatest strength and biggest obstacle is their ability to sound like all of your favorite bands. Anyone who is into this style of fuzzy, brainy indie rock will instantly recognize all of the classic influences: the sounds of Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, and My Bloody Valentine are all replicated on their second album, Agitprop Alterna, to a level of molecular detail. There is a studied, scientific quality to their songs; it’s obvious that songwriter Joe Stevens loves this style of music and has put a lot of thought into the formula that makes it work. Just to pull off this level of mimicry is an accomplishment in and of itself — if it was easy, more bands would do it.
But while the familiar, nostalgic sound of Peel Dream Magazine is what is going to draw listeners in initially, there is depth in AgitpropAlterna and a point of view that moves them beyond being just a hollow copy of superior bands. Compared to their first album, Modern Meta Physic, this one embraces a wider range of sounds and textures, covering almost every angle of their specific obsessive influences. Stevens is the primary instrumentalist, usually playing some noisy guitar or organ with some softer drones mixed in. Singer Jo-Anne Hyun plays a more pivotal role on this album, adding another instrument to the mix and playing off Stevens’ lower register in a way that is reminiscent of those same aforementioned bands that are hard not to mention in every sentence.
The reference points are all boiled down to a series of concise 2-3 minute songs that show Stevens’ skill at crafting the low-key melodies that were the core of all the bands he loves. The opener and lead single, “Pill,” sets the tone as a relentless, tight burst of energy and noise with a catchy, abstract chorus. Throughout the album, Stevens not only captures the familiar sounds, but also that blend of immediacy and intangible strangeness that is so hard to replicate. Songs like “Brief Inner Mission” and the closer “Up and Up” show a softer, pillowy side of the band, leaning into the gentler side of psychedelic pop exhibited by bands like Broadcast.
Most of the songs feel more meditative and internal, but a couple like “NYC Illuminati” and “Emotional Devotion Creator” are pointed criticisms of people who aren’t genuine and “stand for nothing at all.” In those songs, the perspective of Peel Dream Magazine crystallizes a bit. This is not an original band, or an innovative band, but in every song I feel there is a genuine appreciation for the music that inspired them, and a concerted effort to do justice to those heroes in a very uncynical way. Stevens accepts his place in this lineage of music and is smart enough to not try too hard to modify a sound that has already been proven and perfected. Agitprop Alterna can function as something of a meta-album, one that is a worthwhile piece of music itself while also being a celebration of the other bands that inspired it.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m beginning to think this “capitalism” thing might not be as great as we thought. That is the primary lesson in the first season of Showtime’s On Becoming a God in CentralFlorida, an entertaining dark comedy for and possibly by Bernie Sanders supporters. Kirsten Dunst (who endorsed Bernie) stars as Krystal Stubbs, a young mother in early 90s Orlando who is working at a water park for minimum wage when she gets wrapped up in Founders American Merchandise (FAM), a multi-level marketing scheme that seems to more closely resemble a cult than an actual business.
The concept of FAM offers plenty of comedic fodder for the series, starting with the eccentric Obie Garbeau (played with hilarious intensity by Ted Levine) at the top, who rallies his downline troops with tapes touting the power of “The Garbeau System.” One true believer inspired by him is Cody Bonar, played by Theodore Pellerin, who is fanatical about the system, worships Garbeau, and is desperate to make it to the top of the pyramid. His character starts as one-dimensional in the first couple of episodes, but the slow peeling of his layers of personality and backstory ends up being one of the strengths of the series.
Dunst is the anchor of the show and gives a performance that should receive some awards attention. Her Stubbs character is determined, resourceful, and intelligent without ever becoming a Strong Independent Woman fantasy. She has flaws that feel real, and her desperate struggles for money and respect are played straight, even in goofy situations, which is part of the show’s tight balance of comedy and dark drama. And even when Stubbs is “winning” in the context of her goals from episode to episode, the viewer is left wondering if the victories are real, or if she is just becoming the type of dirty capitalist player that caused her to be in poverty to begin with.
Rounding out the strong supporting performances are Mel Rodriguez and Beth Ditto (a familiar name for music dorks) who play a married couple that is friends and neighbors with Stubbs. I recognized Rodriguez from the underrated HBO show Getting On and he gives a similarly sympathetic performance here as a well-meaning sad-sack guy who hides his despair beneath a veil of surface-level positivity. Ditto is fantastic in one of her first acting roles, and the two have a chemistry that makes them feel like a real couple (which is also aided by them looking like normal people, not glamorous actors).
Not everything quite works in this first season; a reporter character with a drug addiction who tries to investigate FAM feels underwritten and one character becomes Stubbs’ friend and babysitter in a relationship that is never quite fully fleshed-out on screen. Still, this show has stand-out performances, a lot of good twisted laughs, and a compelling plot that gradually gets stranger while saying a lot about how the concept of the American dream can be exploitative. There is also a second season on the way and a lot of room for growth with this premise and the main characters, so this would be worth watching even if we weren’t all stuck indoors.