Ganser Delivers Thoughtful, Thrilling Rock With “Just Look at That Sky”

Ganser does not sound like a band that is looking to be included on the next algorithmically-generated chill indie “rock” playlist. The latest from the Chicago group, Just Look at That Sky, brings back some of the traits that I feel have been missing from rock music for awhile: menace, danger, and a desire to stand out and provoke instead of blending in with the crowd. This is music that demands attention, and it’s the most visceral and thrilling rock album I’ve heard in 2020.

The band’s sound has a way of capturing the current tumultuous environment we all find ourselves in: the grinding noise from the guitars and frantic rhythms create a chaotic, anxious mood; everything feels like it’s on the verge of falling apart at any time. This style is indebted to some clear influences that the band own up to themselves, like Sonic Youth and The Jesus Lizard, but Ganser is never in anyone’s shadow because of a distinct point of view that comes from its two vocalists, Nadia Garofalo and Alicia Gaines.

On the third track, “Projector,” Garofalo meets the frenetic sound with a sarcastic, withering delivery, speak-singing lyrics that critique pseudo-intellectuals who mask hopeless nihilism behind a lot of big words and ideas (fittingly, the video features her giving a mock Ted Talk). At least that’s how it seems on the surface, but with Ganser, everything is more complex than it first appears. The song also invites the reading that this is a self-critique, a realization that even good, smart people have days where they feel like nothing matters and so they distract themselves with heady subjects and conversations. While it’s easy — especially now — to make music that dunks on people and gives its audience a sense of intellectual superiority, Just Look at That Sky does something more difficult and worthwhile. Rather than just observe “hey, here are some shitty people and things happening, doesn’t this suck,” the band examines the emotions and anxieties that come from living in crazy times, including the darker feelings some listeners may not want to think about.

Gaines has a powerful voice that echoes around in space, making her suited for the band’s slower and more emotive songs. “Emergency Equipment and Exits” is built around her own bass line and its repeated lyric, “it’s a long way down,” conveys a state of mental precarity, like we’re all internally teetering on the edge of a cliff. “Shadowcasting” is constructed similarly, with words about being unsatisfied and alienated — “lost and never found.” The band’s songs are intentionally ambiguous, with brief and vague lyrics that allow this kind of interpretation, which is a refreshing departure from music that wants to tell you how to feel. This is a why Just Look at That Sky, in addition to kicking ass on a basic musical level, feels more thoughtful and nuanced than just about any other album I’ve heard this year. Nothing the band does feels easy or simple and all of its intense emotions are earned.

With some groups that have two singers, it feels almost like you’re hearing two different bands depending on who is fronting which song. Ganser pulls off the balancing act where the singers are distinct, but their differences in style bring out a wider range of moods that are still part of one unified concept. Garofalo and Gaines are each articulating a different facet of the human experience, and in concert, they capture the complicated and occasionally contradictory feelings people have while surrounded by illogical chaos.

Jessie Ware Makes Pop Music Fun Again With “What’s Your Pleasure?”

A major part of the Great Swift Debates of 2020 has involved the idea of “authenticity.” With Folklore, Swift was consciously playing into a common critical bias: the assumption that less production, joy, and fun makes an album more real and honest (I also mentioned this in my post about Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, so it’s been on my mind lately). Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? serves as a useful counterargument: it’s a big, bold pop album with some of the smoothest production you’ll hear, but it’s also undeniably authentic in its goals and presentation.

Ware operates under the increasingly novel idea that music (especially pop) should be enjoyable to listen to. What’s Your Pleasure? plays sort of like the more worldly older sister of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, using disco-flavored sounds of the past to create songs that are perfect for the current moment. In a context where artists like Swift are trying to earn indie acclaim with their take on boring bearded dude folk, and others are using music more as a vessel for shrill political grandstanding, this album is refreshing in its direct, unpretentious presentation. And while a lot of art made by women lately has a trendy misandrist tone where they berate shitty men — which is understandable, but gets old — What’s Your Pleasure? has a pleasantly inclusive vibe. This album is fun for everyone, and even the most dancefloor-resistant socially awkward dudes (don’t know any myself, just hypothetical) will have a hard time resisting it.

Fitting its nostalgic sound, the lyrics and tone of What’s Your Pleasure? are similarly a throwback, with its focus almost entirely on feminine desire (or, more bluntly, horniness). This can be interpreted partly as Ware capturing her own feelings, but also as a tribute of sorts, as she emulates the sexed-up pop of the past in a way that borders on being campy or semi-ironic. Ware captures this without quite crossing the line into tawdriness, aided by her voice that is sophisticated and soulful. She commands these songs with her singing and presence, and I think her complete confidence is the key to making this album work when it could have teetered into being cheesy. A lot of the fun in listening to this comes from hearing her performance, which is at such a high level without ever taking itself too seriously.

The album’s immaculate production is the other hook, with horns, strings, and pulsing rhythms creating the sensual and funky disco sound that Ware is looking for. The sound is cohesive, but Ware explores a few different moods and styles within this framework. “Ooh La La” and “Read My Lips” are the silly and campy side of her, while the last two tracks, “The Kill” and “Remember Where You Are” are slower, more sincere and soulful. Really, every song is a highlight, and the mix of humor, seriousness, flirtiness, and longing give it depth. Ware has captured a wide range of human emotions on What’s Your Pleasure? and done it in a way that is authentic and a blast to listen to.