Pleasure Symbols Create Alluring Goth Pop on “Closer and Closer Apart”

One of the more tantalizing releases in the last few years was a brief four-song EP from an Australian band called Pleasure Symbols released in 2016. I knew nothing about the band except for what was on the record, which was this hazy, goth/shoegaze-influenced darkwave that was stylish and intriguing. Three years later, they’ve surfaced again with their first full-length, Closer and Closer Apart, after some lineup and sound changes. But despite the overhauls, that core of the band’s style is still there, and this will end up being one of the year’s best albums in this shoegaze and dream pop realm.

The sound on Closer and Closer Apart is more clear, with Jasmine Dunn’s vocals actually being decipherable instead of buried in the sound and mumbled like on that first EP. That change removes a bit of the alluring mystery they had initially, but it’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff in terms of appealing to a slightly wider audience and making more traditionally expressive music. They’ve also moved from the creepier darkwave style into a more familiar goth-dream-pop sound that is inspired by about half the bands that existed in the 1980s.

Despite the move into very well-worn territory, Pleasure Symbols maintain a clear sense of identity on this album by zeroing in on a very specific aesthetic and executing it on song after song with total confidence. The shimmering guitar, the rumbling bass and Dunn’s dreamy-yet-forceful lyrics are exactly what I like about this style of music, especially when it’s combined with this kind of strong pop songwriting. The best songs like “Image Reflected,” “Dissociation,” and “Heavy Breathing” combine major hooks with inward-looking lyrics that touch on the themes you’d expect from any self-respecting goth band: love, control, darkness, suffering, etc. None of the concepts here are new, but it’s been awhile since they’ve been done with this level of thought and craft.

Weyes Blood Tries to Find Meaning in Impending Disaster on “Titanic Rising”

Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, loves the movies. I know this because her latest album, Titanic Rising, has a song called “Movies” on it where she sings “I love the movies.” I also know this because the album’s sound has that high-definition, cinematic quality with opulent string arrangements and lyrics that portray her as a character looking for meaning in life in these heightened, unreal times. At the end of the song, she declares she wants to be her own movie, capturing how the weirdness of our current existence has caused people to experience it almost out-of-body, as the hero in the story of their life that is playing concurrently with everyone else’s.

In 2019, the movie we’re all starring in is a disaster movie like (wait for it) Titanic, except the script isn’t nearly as tight as James Cameron’s masterpiece. Also, the characters in this movie all know the ship is going to sink but can’t actually do anything about it. So instead of being a massively dramatic, entertaining spectacle, it’s often just boring (like the pre-iceberg parts), and Mering gets that, too. “Something to Believe” portrays the relatable desire to get out of her own head and experience an escape from the reality none of us have any control over: “Give me something I can see; something bigger and louder than the voices in me.”

Titanic Rising feels like an attempt at crafting that escape herself, and it’s in a similar space as some other albums I’ve loved in the past couple years like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid, Björk’s Utopia and Julia Holter’s Aviary, which all responded to the current climate of senseless ugliness with thoughtful, sometimes excessive beauty. The sound on this album is gorgeous throughout with psychedelic synths and strings along with smooth production. It’s bolstered even more by Mering’s voice, which has a rich throwback quality that is reminiscent of Judy Garland and Patsy Cline, with a bit of Joni Mitchell and Aimee Mann tossed in. It’s easy on the ears, but the themes she is grappling with are complex and difficult.

Before I even listened to this album, I knew it was dealing with climate change and was worried it was going to be a bunch of on-the-nose songs about glaciers melting. Instead, outside of the occasional lyrical reference, it’s a subject that looms over the music, much like it does in our day-to-day lives where we go about our mundane business and then occasionally remember “oh yeah, we’re all gonna die.” Mering captures a lot of relatable anxieties and stresses in this album, showing she has that rare gift of making her own observations feel universal. And despite occasionally gloomy material, the sound of Titanic Rising on songs like the jaunty “Everything” and theatrical opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” conveys a sense of warmth and optimism, even with disaster hanging overhead. I guess the one upside of the planet being destroyed is that it’s inspiring albums that sound like this.

Spellling’s “Mazy Fly” is One of the Year’s Most Original Albums

Mazy Fly, the second album by Spellling, feels like a throwback to a sound that never actually existed. Its vintage, sometimes cheesy-sounding electronics bring to mind the 80s while Chrystia Cabral’s soulful voice is reminiscent of classic funk or disco singers. It’s an odd mix of traits that doesn’t feel like it should work, and it took me a couple listens to get used to the album’s sound and its weird internal logic. A few listens later, I’m somewhat awed that an album can be this listenable while having such a unique sound.

Cabral is a really good singer in a conventional sense — she can hit notes and emote in a way that is similar to a lot of much more popular artists who are on the radio. But rather than let that gift be used in generic pop songs, she has her own vision that is haunting, spacey and alien. The mix of the conventional and the uncanny makes everything on the album feel a little off in a way that distinguishes it from other music in this space. On the opener, “Red” she twists her voice into something more grotesque, reminding me of someone like Fever Ray. Other songs like “Haunted Water” have more of a darkwave influence, with creepy strings and a more macabre vibe. The album’s centerpiece, “Under the Sun,” is probably the best showcase of all of her traits, with its long cinematic intro, celestial lyrics, and retro-futuristic sound.

The mysterious, out of place sound of Mazy Fly fits with its themes, which are similarly hard to pin down. The album’s Bandcamp page has its own press release explanation of what’s going on, but I think it’s more effective as a vague, ambiguous journey, and the variety of sounds gives the listener a lot of freedom to put it together themselves. More than anything, the joy of this album is hearing such a talented artist maximize her abilities and go down her own path instead of taking the easier road traveled by so many others.

Tamaryn Takes Another Step Forward With “Dreaming the Dark”

In the last decade or so, Tamaryn has a collection of albums that stands up to anyone, with a clear progression in her sound and artistic persona, from the immersive shoegaze of her debut The Waves to the synth-pop vision of Cranekiss. While a lot of artists can roughly emulate the sound of classic goth/shoegaze bands like Cocteau Twins, Tamaryn understands what makes this genre actually appeal to listeners, and she consistently delivers memorable songs that have a heightened sense of drama and emotion. A lot of this is due to her singing voice, which has increasingly been the focus of her music and particularly takes center stage on her latest album, Dreaming the Dark.

The arrangements on this album are more sparse than her previous work, which moves it slightly out of the shoegaze realm and more into 80s-style synth pop. The downside of this approach is it loses some of the feeling of getting totally lost in the sound like I still do listening to The Waves, but it also feels like a confident move forward for Tamaryn, who more directly owns these songs rather than getting lost in the production. The full range of her voice is heard on stand-out tracks like “Angels of Sweat” and “Terrified,” as well as her improved lyrics, which serve a more important role in this less noisy style.

While Tamaryn’s music has always been expressive, Dreaming the Dark feels like the closest listeners have come to actually getting to know the artist behind the sounds. “You’re Adored” has a more personal touch, with lyrics written about her dog, while the minimalist “Fits of Rage” shows a more aggressive side of her that is a departure from dreamy pop. While it’s hard to pull obvious meanings out of the songs by just reading the lyrics, the songs are performed in a way where they are obviously meaningful.

It is hard not to get Kate Bush vibes listening to this, especially “Victim Complex” which reminds me of “Waking the Witch” from Hounds of Love. And like Bush, Tamaryn’s music is appealing because it has these fantastical, ethereal qualities, but is still rooted in reality. It’s how Dreaming the Dark works as both escapist pop and as a relatable portrayal of an artist’s feelings and struggles.

“The Seduction of Kansas” is the Ideal Punk Album for 2019

I’m starting to love it when punk bands mellow out. The first album by Priests, Nothing Feels Natural, was released right after Trump was inaugurated and was widely received as an intense call to action. While I liked it fine enough, I didn’t think the songs were overly memorable or original, and it wasn’t an album I found myself going back to since its release. Listening to their new album, The Seduction of Kansas, I feel like the band might have agreed with me: it’s a full-scale evolution that embraces a much wider set of influences and inspirations. Every song sounds different, but it all coheres into an album that retains the band’s fiery voice while being a much more adventurous listen.

The change in direction has led to a less excited response from critics, who seem to struggle with music that doesn’t make its intentions as obvious as possible. They and many others think punk music needs to be about yelling didactic opinions at the listener while playing at max volume. The Seduction of Kansas is the next level of punk, where the artists are confident enough in their words, convictions, and musical ability that they don’t need to make a big show of how aggressive and intense they are. It reminds me of a bit of wisdom I read from former professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts, when asked why he tended to speak quietly while other wrestlers were known for screaming into the mic: “If you’re yelling at me, I’m not listening. If you’re whispering, everyone’s listening, thinking it’s a secret.”

The quieter and more spacious sound of The Seduction of Kansas draws me in more than their previous material, and it makes their lyrics feel more impactful. Make no mistake: this is still a rock album, and it has moments that rival the intensity of their previous music. But now those heavier songs, like the opener “Jesus’ Son” and the raucous “Control Freak,” stand out more and feel more vital because they’re surrounded by these funky, surprisingly catchy pop songs. “68 Screen” has an addictive chorus and relatable lyrics about how the internet has warped our perceptions of each other. My favorite song on the album, “Carol,” is almost reminiscent of Stereolab with its driving rhythm, dreamy coda, and the politically conscious lyrics that retain some level of abstraction.

On a philosophical level, The Seduction of Kansas captures the way I’ve been feeling about the current political and cultural climate. Namely, that empty outrage is not a solution to anything. Now is the time to regroup, think, and actually consider the people around us and what we can do to make the world less terrible. It may not always sound like one, but this album is a call towards a different kind of action.

Anemone Captures the Good Parts of the 60s on “Beat My Distance”

Every once in awhile, I come across an album that almost feels algorithmically generated to appeal to me. Anemone’s Beat My Distance combines krautrock, French pop, breezy psychedelia, and pretty much every other style of music I enjoy into a very pleasant package. It’s a little hard to tell if it’s actually “good” or if it just panders to me, but these days I don’t see much reason to draw a distinction. If I want to listen to it, it’s probably great.

The twangy guitars and bright synth parts, along with Chloe Soldevila’s airy vocals, make Beat My Distance sound like that idyllic version of the 60s that people have built up in their mind, where everyone walked around outside on sunny days and handed out flowers to each other while definitely not being racist. The overall focus on good vibes and lack of any rough edges can sometimes lead to the album feeling a bit naïve and absent of personality. These are flaws that I find easy to look past when the songs are this enjoyable to listen to, and this album provides a nice escape from the real world and its issues.

“Sunshine (Back to the Start”) is the clear highlight here; its bouncy rhythms, instrumental outro, and simple lyrics all add up to one of the more addictive songs of the year so far. Its template is followed by a lot of the songs on this album, which is all about mining familiar sounds and lyrical themes, creating a sense of nostalgia in the music. This could easily backfire (and many listeners might be turned off by the lack of originality), but Soldevila’s lack of cynicism and knowledge of exactly what her music is help me give this a high grade, even if she might have peeked at a neighbor’s paper a couple of times.

“What Chaos is Imaginary” Shows a Band in Flux

In one of my recent posts, I lamented the way really young artists are disproportionately hyped in the music industry due to novelty. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to any of them, and one of my favorites in the past few years has been Girlpool, who started out making amateurish, heartfelt songs that were reminiscent of The Shaggs on Before the World Was Big, then evolved into a full-fledged indie rock band on 2017’s Powerplant. They overhauled their sound while maintaining the band’s biggest strength: the genuine connection between Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, who sang in interlocked harmonies and conveyed authentic, youthful feelings instead of trying to sound older than they are. It made me feel like I was hearing the band grow up and change on every song.

That theme continues on their new album, What Chaos is Imaginary, but in a way that is much more dramatic than I would have expected. Tucker came out as transgender last year and started taking testosterone, which lowered their singing voice. It’s a courageous decision that is way more important than music, and it feels like trivializing it to analyze how it impacts the band. But they did put out a new album with Tucker’s voice on it, and it’s impossible to ignore how it has fundamentally changed the band’s aesthetic — those lockstep feminine harmonies are gone, which is what gave Girlpool their distinct style that reminded me of a musical version of nursery rhymes or “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Not to be too clinical about it, but all of this makes What Chaos is Imaginary fascinating to listen to. It’s not just hearing a band evolve like all of them do from album to album; it’s a band that has lost one instrument and replaced it with a new one. And parts of this album reflect what must have been the difficulty of figuring that out — I think it runs a little too long at 14 songs and 45 minutes and it sounds like they’re trying many different types of songs without a clear idea of what the band should be now, especially compared to the focused and confident sound of Powerplant.

While Tucker and Tividad always sang simultaneously before this, here they settle into more of a traditional lead singer/backing singer dynamic on most songs. The ones where Tucker takes lead are the biggest departures from the band’s previous material; “Lucy’s” and “Hire” show their new voice and are the most traditional indie rock songs the band has made. Tividad’s songs like “Pretty” and “Stale Device” are closer to the familiar Girlpool sound with the harmonies and mix of sweet melodies and abrasiveness. Chunks of the album feel almost too traditional to me — without the unique harmonies of previous material, a lot of this sounds like a normal indie rock band, and I feared the magic from previous recordings may have been lost.

But they find something that really works in the back half of the album. “Minute in Your Mind” and the title track are spacy ballads with keyboards that add an extra layer of psychedelia to the band. On the former track, Tucker’s voice sounds at home in the more subdued mode, and Tividad harmonizes on the back half of the song in a way that is reminiscent of old Girlpool but still inherently different. Tividad takes the lead on “What Chaos is Imaginary,” which adds strings to the mix and is the band’s most ambitious recording yet, with a larger sense of scale than anything they’ve ever done.

The way Tividad and Tucker separate from each other on the album is reminiscent of how tight friendships can fade away or change in meaning year by year. The change here is drastic but it also feels true to life, and there is a lot to like here in the songwriting (which is as soulful and endearing as it’s always been) and the band’s ability to find new sounds and push themselves on every recording. Part of me still is unfairly focusing too much on what was lost and is mourning the old Girlpool sound from Powerplant. But something has also been gained on What Chaos is Imaginary, and it is exciting to think of the future of this collaboration that surprises and evolves with every album.