she addicted me: Natasha Khan is SEXWITCH

Sexwitch-album-cover-560x560Confession: I first played SEXWITCH, the new collaboration of Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes) with TOY and producer Dan Carey, while cooking on the autumn equinox. “When I die I’ll go back to where I was…nothing,” sang Natasha, and I whisked my sauce moonwise, contemplating the view through my kitchen window–an effrontery of green, the humid blanket of a Florida backyard. My body is still used to the seasonal procession of northeast Ohio, still yearning for trees aflame and acorns underfoot. It is both easy to believe and totally incomprehensible that I will die in Florida, because it’s where I was born, where I sprang fully-formed from my mother’s head. When I die, I’ll go back to where I was.

Some artists live in you to the extent that you know you’ll buy anything they produce without trying it out first, probably in multiple formats. And some artists demand just a little more, more effort than the trip to the record store and more time than the hour and change of dedicated listening, blood instead of money and soul instead of eardrums. Unthinkable to play a Natasha Khan record out of my phone’s tinny speakers, competing with the thrum of my car’s wheels, or even to throw the CD in on my way home from work. This was an occasion for vinyl and wine, candles flickering, dinner on a lovely plate I rarely use. Now and then it’s good to embrace stereotypes. There is an earnest quality to Khan, in music and in live performance, that is forgiving, understanding. She’s like the older sister who never made fun of you for playing dress-up.

Panting, moans, peals of laughter, whistles, shrieks, and yes, witch’s cackles: SEXWITCH’s six global psych-folk songs draw sounds from Khan heard only a few times before, on Bat for Lashes songs like “Bat’s Mouth” and “Horses of the Sun.” Recorded live in a single session, the EP mixes Khan’s insistent, experimental vocals with bongos, primal bass, bells, and esoteric synth and guitar. The songs are translated from their original Persian, Thai, and Moroccan Arabic; the English lyrics ultimately used are, in most cases, a combination effort of several translations by friends and colleagues of Khan. There is triumph and brutal promise on “Helelyos,” there is seduction on “Lam Plearn Kiew Bao” and keen exhaustion on “Peace in War”; always, necessarily with translations, there is a fluidity and unease, voices and instruments dancing on the edge. A witch inhabits the liminal.


SEXWITCH is a winding road through protest, ancestry, repression, eternal questions and subjective desires. It’s a record to be listened to solo, or with particular female friends–maybe not your closest, but the ones who understand the part of you that rarely sees daylight. It’s primal scream therapy, a seance in the Lascaux caves. And as with most Khan releases, it’s timely: a perfect fall album, brief as the beauty of gilded maples and cunning as an herbwife, ominous and compelling.

Diana Hurlburt is a writer and librarian in Florida. Progressive metal, fantasy paperbacks, and Swedish Fish are a few of her favorite things.

“Everyone’s Gonna Be Happy” – The Libertines’ ANTHEMS FOR DOOMED YOUTH

This life, this love, this river has to end – but just for now, we have all the time. One of the texts I read in my sophomore year poetry class was the classic war poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen. What struck me – and stuck with me – was not the poem’s content, but its title. It’s a sentimental title, stringing together three words that conjure up a certain moody and almost juvenile cynicism, but it is a great title. Owen’s classic is a sympathetic “anthem” for soldiers in the field during World War I, these young men with their predetermined deaths. But what about the rest of the youth: the kids who are doomed to grow up, or to conform, or to face their fears? What about the rest of us? Didn’t we need an anthem too?

If you stay strong, you’re a better man than I. On the night of September 10, when Anthems For Doomed Youth – the Libertines’ stunning third album and their first in eleven years – was released, Peter Doherty had an anxiety attack. Panicked, in need of support, Peter left London, where he was due to play with the Libertines, and headed towards Coventry to find a friend to help him. Meanwhile, over a thousand fans were waiting in a Camden Town venue for the band they loved to show up. Beers in hands, hair artfully mussed, cell phones held up just waiting to capture Pete and Carl together again, they chanted the lyrics to “Fame and Fortune:” to Camden we will crawl, one and all. And Peter – clean from his addiction for the first time in a long time, thrust back into the spotlight, putting his art on display, in a convoluted family situation, in the midst of a personal crisis – crawled away from Camden. He has since recovered and played shows, but it is important to keep in mind that the Libertines, hearty and gung-ho as they may seem, are not entirely stable, that they never were.

What happened to the joy in the hearts of the boys? Part of the perfection of Anthems For Doomed Youth is that it bares the Libertines’ current situation in full honesty: they are pleased to be back together again, but they are still fragile. The music press has exhaustively chronicled the story of the Libertines (they fight, they break up, they kiss, they make up) to the point of making it a modern myth, but it was always Peter Doherty and Carl Barât who wrote the story the best. Back on 2002’s Up the Bracket and 2004 The Libertines, beloved songs like “What Became of the Likely Lads” and “Can’t Stand Me Now” revealed the reality of the Libertines. Nothing – from the blurry, extremely volatile relationship between Pete and Carl, to Pete’s fondness for Class A drugs, to their respective romantic lives – was left out of their lyrics. And despite the then-boys now being well into their thirties, the same senses of infatuation, despondency, and youthful vigor streak through Anthems For Doomed Youth. The boys are just a little more careful now, a little more broken now.

I just get so overrun. Impossible dreams, they come for me. The album is a treasure trove of gut-wrenching major/minor chord changes, lyrics that paint vivid Technicolor pictures, and revealing literary references. It’s an album written to be relatable, and you know you can relate to it, because the people who put their whole hearts into it were doomed youth themselves, not too long ago. The pure piano melody of “You’re My Waterloo” (You’ll never fumigate the demons, no matter how much you smoke) fits just as well as the bass-heavy, cloudy, raspy “Dead for Love” (And when the final hour arrives, it’s only lovers left alive). The record was obviously written and organized to tug at specific heartstrings – in the band’s patented dysfunctional, emotional way. And the album ends with the two frontmen murmuring lines (Dark nights render but one part of us dark) in your ears: in stereo, that’s Peter in your left ear and Carl in the right. It leaves you feeling whole and empty all at once; it leaves you wanting to chant, “A few months ago, the Libertines were dead! Long live the Libertines!”

Here’s a story about the rules of death and glory. Here are the four indie heartthrobs with wide eyes and messy hair, turned devoted husbands and fathers and weary adults. Here is Up the Bracket Alley in Bethnal Green, with Libertines lyrics and messages and love and poetry scrawled all over the cool brick walls. Here is an album recorded at a rehabilitation facility in Thailand. Here are the two men who start the show at separate microphones but inevitably end up sharing one, breathing each other in. Here are the two voices that used to sound so perfect together, once upon a time. They are harmonizing, they are quietly dissonant, they are interrupting each other only to let the other take control again. Here is once upon a time all over again.

This one’s for your heart and for your mind. The melody’s in 4/4 time. This is music made by men who were told they would be dead before they were out of boyhood. It is the clashing emotions and conflicting guitar lines of “Heart of the Matter,” shining with triumph and pride and regret and confusion. It is not knowing how to put pen to paper and make art with a person that you love deeply, a decade after you did it for what you thought was the last time. These are the cohesive transitions between tracks, showing the depth of songwriting maturity the Libertines have picked up in the last decade. These are the messy guitars and clean production on “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues,” the wistful beauty of “Iceman.” These are a few acoustic strums swirling into a reverberating haze, a drum kick, and then, BOOM: the undeniable chorus.

Amulya Tadimety is a teenage dirtbag/professional cynic/human bean who lives on the East Coast. She likes pop music, social media, confetti, and nice people.

“Look at you, looking at me” and “It’s not fashionable to love me”: Lana Del Rey Gazing Back on HONEYMOON

Honeymoon starts with a few mournful swells of strings, a moment of silence just long enough to feel awkward, and then this line: “We both know it’s not fashionable to love me.” It feels almost too on-the-nose, too pointed, but then again, everything about Honeymoon is on the nose. This is Lana Del Rey doing Lana Del Rey in the biggest, purest way she knows how; Lana Del Rey being exactly what we asked her to be; Lana Del Rey, gazing back.

The title track sets the tone for the album in more ways than just that. Sonically, all 12 songs are cut from the same cloth as “Honeymoon.” The instrumentals are like the orchestral soundtrack for a movie about the way we conceptualize Old Hollywood Glamour in the 21st century, beautiful and haunting but mostly serving to prop up the main draw: Lana. Her voice sounds better than it ever has, in my opinion. We get the sort of sultry, vaguely bored drawl we’ve come to expect, but there are just enough breathy falsettos and hummed bars peppered in to keep things interesting.

The whole album has the same sadness and pop and glitter of “This is What Makes Us Girls” and “Video Games” (although no song on Honeymoon comes close to being as excellent as “This is What Makes Us Girls”) but it’s also more self-aware in a way that I find vastly appealing. She is singing about jazz and California and pink flamingoes and Billie Holiday; she is really Performing Lana Del Rey. But she knows not everyone loves Lana Del Rey, and the tension that comes out of that self-awareness is a vital element of Honeymoon. “I don’t matter to anyone, but Hollywood legends will never grow old,” she sings on “Terrence Loves You.” The line that follows “we both know it’s not fashionable to love me” is “but you don’t go ‘cause truly there’s nobody for you but me.” She knows. “Look at you, looking at me.” She sees.

The feeling here is that Lana’s relationship to music and fame is about as healthy as her other relationships. She’s “looking in all the wrong places,” she knows “nothing gold can stay,” she just wants to “get high by the beach.” On “Art Deco” she sings, “I’ve got nothing much to live for, ever since I found my fame,” and she means it, but she also isn’t sure she wants to give it up. She’s in love with California and fame and being seen just as much as she resents it; she’s luxuriating in our idea of her music as music to pop Xanax and lounge by the pool drinking champagne to even when it chafes.

Jessica Hopper said in her review over at Pitchfork that the album “belongs to a larger canon of Southern California Gothic albums—Celebrity Skin, Hotel California, The Hissing of Summer Lawns” because of the way Lana sings about “the sprawl, toxicity, the culture of transactional relationships, the particulars of the light” in California, and I’m definitely inclined to agree. Something about the album feels like dancing by yourself to jazz records and then jumping into an ice-cold pool at a party even though you are in a fancy dress just to feel something. That’s melodramatic, but you have to have an appreciation for dramatic flair to appreciate Honeymoon.

I’ve seen people say that the songs blend together to the point of being almost indistinguishable from one another. That’s a valid criticism; the release doesn’t have a lot of variety, no. Sure, there are highlights (“The Blackest Day,” “God Knows I Tried,” and “Music to Watch Boys To” are my favorites) and missteps (“Religion,” the disappointing chorus of “Art Deco”), but overall the presentation and sound are unified across all the tracks in a way that feels intentional rather than accidental. For me, that’s a positive, and honestly there is something punk rock about the fact that she knows this isn’t radio music, these songs aren’t commercial-material, but you get the sense that she shrugged and recorded a whole album of almost sleepy-sounding romantic songs anyway. I like that. This is an album for putting on a turntable, for lying on the ground while you listen, for losing track of how long you let your last coat of nail polish dry for because you can’t tell how many songs have passed.

All of that being said, I’m not going to tiptoe around what people want to know: this album isn’t Born to Die 2.0. Lana Del Rey will never make anything as captivating and dynamic as Born to Die, and she knows it. You hear it on Honeymoon, you hear it in interviews. She knows. But that doesn’t mean Honeymoon isn’t important, doesn’t mean it isn’t progress in its own way. Honeymoon feels like the logical conclusion to a trilogy of albums developing the story and sound of Lana Del Rey, a singer that the world once accused of being a hoax just because of the control she exerted over her image and presentation.

Now she’s given us the ultimate product, a blues-y, mournful procession of an album that feels like the essence of Who Lana Del Rey Is, or who we are expecting her to be at least. But it is vital to recognize that she won’t give us everything, that she doesn’t have to. She isn’t looking at us from the cover. She’s looking into the distance, and she’s shielded by sunglasses and hat and hair and folded arms and car. We only have what she’s willing to give us. But what she’s given us is beautiful.

Now I’ll Take What’s Mine: Metric’s PAGANS IN VEGAS

Today marks the release of PAGANS IN VEGAS — the sixth full-length album from canonical Canadian Indie Band Metric, and a record title so spectacular that I cannot seem to keep myself from writing its name in all caps.

Metric’s hard-edged, glinting brand of dance pop is sharp as ever. Album opener “Lie Lie Lie” slinks its way through a melody both snap-along and sinister until slipping into a hypnotic one-word chorus that recalls Chasidic chants; second single “Cascades” bops along to a toe-tapping beat with lyrics barely discernible through a shimmering curtain of robotic distortion; “Blind Valentine” seesaws between flat petulance and bright, anthemic nostalgia. These songs are blue neon, silver glitter, black leather, electric current — the same stuff Metric has always been made of. What differentiates Pagans most from its predecessors is how emotionally resilient it seems. To date, Metric’s most popular single (“Help I’m Alive,” from 2009’s Fantasies) is a song about the terror and confusion of being alive; 2012’s Synthetica starts with a grandiose proclamation of I’m just as fucked up as they say, and Emily Haines herself wrote in a letter on the band’s website that the album was “about forcing yourself to confront what you see in the mirror when you finally stand still long enough to catch a reflection… about what is real vs what is artificial.”

If Fantasies is about being terrified by reality, and Synthetica is about interrogating it, Pagans In Vegas might just be about coming to terms with it. This is the kind of album you get after having torn your own guts out ten thousand times and traced your fortunes on the filthy floor so often that you can start poking fun at yourself, as in “Too Bad, So Sad,” the chorus of which intersperses flippant, sardonic, cowgirlish woo hoo! cheers between the pleas of a self begging get me out of this state I’m in.

The emotional crux of the album comes from lead single “The Shade” and the immediately subsequent “Celebrate.” They’re big songs, movie montage music, shiny and soaring and shot through with just enough melancholy to make your heart twinge. I want it all, I want it all, goes the chorus of “The Shade,” but there’s nothing desperate or gasping in the refrain, just a kind of expansive joyousness, the open-hearted revelation of someone who feels, at long last, ready to embrace the whole flawed beautiful world with a whole flawed beautiful self. We got the sunshine, we got the shade. This is an album about coaxing yourself along, about reassuring yourself to keep going, even when, as Haines sings, It’s hard to see from where I stand / there’s a future close at hand and it’s worth living.

This is an album about choosing to tell yourself you are alive, you are a real person, and you are deserving of being so. The lead single from Synthetica, “Breathing Underwater,” goes They were right when they said / we were breathing underwater / Out of place all the time / In a world that wasn’t mine to take. In “Celebrate,” Haines counters: I’ve been blessed and I’ve been cursed / I’ve been the best, I’ve been the worst / now I’ll take what’s mine.

tattoo our arms and raise our glasses: Mischief Brew’s THIS IS NOT FOR CHILDREN

Every time Mischief Brew comes out with a new album, I get hella stoked. In part because they are one of those bands whose albums seem to say exactly what I need to hear at the time in my life when they come out, but also because they are one of the few quote-unquote folk punk bands who haven’t stagnated, who defy expectation with each release.

Folk punk, to me, is either music with punk energy and sentiment played acoustically, and/or punk music that incorporates some of the elements and instrumentation of folk music. I used to be heavy into folk punk, and I do still like some of the bands around the edges of that genre, but I’ve grown tired of Folk Punk as a Thing. Most times when I hear a new (or new-to-me) band, they sound like shitty photocopies of every other folk punk band, and their lyrics are so reliant on the subgenre’s tropes as to be almost parodic. Like, okay, you hate The Man and you can’t hold down a real job, and you like hopping trains and getting stick & poke tattoos, and you drink too much (unless you’re a straightedge folk punk band, in which case you don’t drink at all), and you’re gonna yell about all those things overtop someone banging on a guitar and someone else playing a washboard so loud it’ll make my eardrums bleed. I get it. I too hate The Man! I too am not so good at holding down a real job! I too used to hop trains, and I still get stick & poke tattoos and sometimes drink too much! I own, and play, an acoustic guitar…and a washboard! But in the name of Saint Julian the Poor, can’t you find anything else to talk about, or at least a different way to talk about it? Mischief Brew has never had that same-old same-old problem. Even when they’re singing about hating The Man, or hopping trains, or drinking, Erik Petersen is such a good lyricist that he manages to avoid the cliches of the genre. And they have never stuck to just one sound – not even on the same album. Their albums always have me wondering what the next track would bring, and This Is Not For Children is no exception.

“Two Nickels” has a country chug and a punk charge, a heart of diesel with a spark of “oil and kerosene.” “Bad Heart” is straight-up punk, that perfect sort of anthem that makes you feel better about being your alienated, screwed-up self. Crack me if you can, my friend,” Erik sings. Help me find some evidence that I wasn’t just a poor design. It’s a tough good fight to win when you’ve got a bad heart. “Lancaster Avenue Blues” begins with an almost Eastern European rhythm, but then Rebecca Schlappich’s violin joins in, so hauntingly sad, and the rest of the song has a Celtic punk feel. It has that sorrow, that rage, it is a protest song but also a drinking song. And the lyrics tell the heartbreaking story of gentrification and displacement in West Philly. You got your wreckin’ balls and eminent domain, you got your buildings where we work, and used to play, but we knew the night was over when the Univer-City banners came. “City of Black Fridays” is one guitar solo away from being a Bruce Springsteen song. I mean that as a good thing. It’s got an optimistic beat, both acoustic and electric guitars, and a harmonica. It’s got the down and out yet resilient characters and is a love song to a down and out yet resilient place – except that it’s about Philadelphia rather than New Jersey. And it’s also about baseball! If you’re singing this song, you can’t lose – even when your home team does. From the Bull back to the wall to the top of city hall, we are beaten, full of crow, but I know I’d never call another home “home.”

(If you’d like to hear Mischief Brew covering a Springsteen tune, you can listen to their cover of “My Hometown.” It hurts, but it’s a good hurt.) “Squatter Envy” has elements of old school Mischief Brew, that swinging hop, but is also super punk-electric. Your life would be so much better if you just fucked it up. “Danger: Falling Pianos” starts off with a swing tempo and a Django Reinhardt-esque guitar, and then a great electric riff blasts in. It’s an apocalyptic punk swing dance, an anthem for trespassing and going all the places “they” tell you not to go. They say, “don’t get caught down on that side of the tracks.” Gimme danger, disbeware of this and that. “O, Pennsyltucky!” is a ballad, though it’s not without it’s raucous moments. And it almost makes me cry. I have a long history with the great state of ‘Pennsyltucky,’ particularly old Filthadelph, Hostile City, PA (Fun fact: Erik Petersen, and his pre-Mischief Brew band, The Orphans, were from West Chester, the same suburb of Philadelphia that I once lived in). The other reason it almost makes me cry is that we all have places like that – towns and cities that are our homes whether we like it or not. Cities that make us want to sing: I love just to leave you, but it’s good to see you.

“This Is Not For Children,” once again, balances the country-folk influence with blistering punk rock (That gang-vocal “lie lie lie” section in the middle could’ve come straight out of a Bad Religion tune). “No Candlesticks” proves, perhaps better than any other track on the album, that Mischief Brew doesn’t lean too hard on either the folk thing or the punk thing, but rather take the best elements of both and make them their own. It has a hint of Eastern European folk music, plus a bit of a carnival feel. It is also amplified, with a pinch of distortion, and punk rock sing-along woah-oh-ohs. And it includes a musical interlude with a bass line and guitar riff that remind me of something that could have been on the World/Inferno Friendship Society’s Just the Best Party, which gets to me in a way I couldn’t explain without writing an entire separate article about it. Lyrically, well – I hate to keep using the word anthemic, but… I once said that all the best songs are either anthems, ballads, or both, and “No Candlesticks” is one hell of an anthem. Throw it down and bottoms up. Join in our ode of reckless lunacy. Double wick, no candlesticks until we burn, and that’s a way to be. Going by my subjective statement about what songs make the best songs, “Slow Death Hymn” is both. It is a ballad for the ones we’ve lost, and an anthem for those who are still with us. And it makes me cry.

Last week (upon time of writing), I found out that an old zine friend and former penpal of mine took his own life earlier this month. I hadn’t spoken to him in many years, but I always held him, and his words, in my heart. When I’m getting ready to write an album review, I listen to the album over and over, and often find myself listening to particular tracks more than others. When getting ready to write this review, with that old friend ghosting my mind, I listened to “Slow Death Hymn” twice for every one time I listened to the other tracks. Tonight, this one’s for him, and all the others that the world lost too soon. So tattoo our arms and raise our glasses, call out your names this New Year’s Eve. And may the next time we kneel at a casket, we say, “At least the story’s complete.” For those who are still here – if it’s a highway, I want you there at the side, still awake and still alive. And I want Mischief Brew playing the soundtrack, forever and ever, amen.

Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. She writes about nostalgia, desire, identity, music, wild girls, and her misspent youth

We’re Gonna Be Taken Seriously: Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s Not Sorry

Here’s my big, dirty secret: I love pop punk. I grew up going to a lot of hardcore shows, and I loved bands from all the punk sub-genres, but the punk bands whose albums I spun over and over were, for the most part, pop punk bands. That remains true to this day. I know – there’s more than one kind of pop punk, and ‘pop punk’ means different things to different people. For brevity’s sake I’ll say this: when I talk about pop punk bands, I mean bands that are influenced by the Ramones, et. al., and usually have traces of ‘50s rock & roll and early ‘60s pop. I mean bands that are loud (punk), but have sing-along melodies and catchy hooks (pop). I mean bands that sound like they should’ve been part of the Lookout Records catalog, circa the mid-to-late ‘90s. Dee Dee help me, I love that sound. It makes me want to put on my tightest jeans, lace up my Chucks, and pogo while I sing along.

Okay, my love for pop punk isn’t really a secret. But saying “I’m a pop punk fan” sure feels like a weighty confession, because of the stigma attached to the term. Labeling yourself, or a band, pop punk, is like an invitation for the Tru Punx and Punk Bros (not all of whom are dudes – punk bro-ness is an affliction which can plague anyone of any gender) to come crawling out from the rocks they live under, shouting: “Poser! Loser! Wannabe!” There is so much stigma around pop punk that most bands won’t even touch the term. Call a band pop punk, and they’ll likely say: “Uh, no. We play melodic punk rock.” Oh, right.

I am here to tell you that Bad Cop/Bad Cop do not care about any such stigma. Though they don’t refer to themselves as pop punk, I can’t imagine they’d mind me giving them that label. They are too busy having fun and rocking out to worry about what they’re called. And, no matter what genre you classify it under, Not Sorry is one of the best albums of the year.

Track one, “Nightmare,” starts off with a three-part harmony, sung by bassist/vocalist Linh Le, and guitarists/vocalists Stacey Dee and Jennie Cotterill – “Hello, hello, hello.” Then Myra Gallarza charges in with the drums (a pounding rhythm and plenty of shimmering hi-hat) and the bass and guitars join in, and they sing: “Oh yeah, I’m a nightmare, and you’re a dream come true.” “Nightmare” sets the tone for the entire album: infectious as hell, super-tight musicianship, clever lyrics. It makes my pop punk heart go whoah-oh-oh! “Anti Love Song” starts off with freakin’ hand-claps and a bass line that’s so retro-‘50s it would sound right at home on the Grease soundtrack (think: “Summer Lovin’). Then it gets louder, and: “Well, I’m done writing love songs to anyone. Dear everyone, you won’t get no more from me.” Speaking as someone who falls in love fast and spends a lot of time writing about the people I’ve loved, this speaks to me. “Well, if you got a song from me, I’m taking it back, don’t you see. You never seemed to earn it, anyway. Those songs I wrote when I was choked up over you now make me throw up in my mouth, cos you’re just fantasy.” The best part comes in the last 25 seconds of the song: the hand-claps return, the back-up singers croon “doo-wop, doo-wop, doo-waahhh,” and then…”You never meant shit to me, hahahaha.”

One of the great things about Not Sorry is that, though I’d classify it as pop punk, the songs don’t all follow the same formula. ‘The songs all following the same formula’ is one of the main criticisms I’ve heard levied against pop punk: “It’s just 1-2-3-4, fuckin’ try something new already!” What, because brootal hardcore songs never get repetitive, bro? Ahem. Anyway, you cannot accuse Bad Cop/Bad Cop of not having a wide range of musical influences.”Here’s To You” has a hint of Celtic folk-punk, and I can imagine it as a long-lost Flogging Molly tune. Even the subject matter fits into that – “So here’s to you, my good friend. Let’s have a drink and celebrate the times that we had with everyone who went first.” It makes me tear up a little; I am a sucker for songs about friendship. “Cheers” sounds like it was influenced by Social Distortion, it has elements of that same diesel-chugging country punk, but it’s one thousand times better than Social D because Mike Ness isn’t involved. His voice bugs me. I like Linh, Stacey, and Jennie’s voices way more. “Joey Lawrence” has the best use of whoah-ohs in a pop punk song, ever, because not only is it hella pop punk, it’s the perfect way to reference Joey Lawrence! Whoa! “Sugarcane” is a badass song in support of a friend who’s in an abusive relationship. It urges the friend to get out of the relationship and have a better life: “Fuck what your mother taught you, you’re worth more than you could dream today.” The singer also threatens the abusive jerk with retribution: “I’d use a fuckin’ hammer on his face, yes I would do that for her. I would bite, kick, stab and brawl – then he’d be out of her life forever.” I am so here for the song and that sentiment. I am fiercely protective of my lady friends, and have several times come this close to putting on my shitkickers and kicking the shit out of boys who’ve treated them badly.

“I’m Alright” opens with a mellow ska beat, heavy low-end bass and that upstroke guitar, then speeds up and goes wild. It’s a song about falling apart, having a nervous breakdown, and trying to convince both yourself and your friends that you’re doing fine. “I’m not alright. I’m pretty sure that I’m alright.” Welcome to the story of my life. “Rip You to Shreds” once again nods toward the ’50s, with the swinging climb of the bass riff, and some finger-snaps thrown in for good measure, but it also has lyrics like: “I got no time for stupid motherfuckers.” To mention Grease again – the women of Bad Cop/Bad Cop sure as hell ain’t Sandy, they’re Rizzo. “Support,” the final track, is the most ‘hardcore’ sounding song on the album. It is loud, distorted, driving, with a guitar riff that harks back to the Bad Religion albums of the early-mid ‘90s. “Your silence is defense of the status quo,” they sing, and that is a statement I want printed on a t-shirt. With those songs, and the other four tracks on the album, Bad Cop/Bad Cop prove that they are excellent musicians and lyricists. They incorporate a diverse array of musical influences, yet never stray too far from their melodic punk rock roots. Their vocal stylings most often remind me of Kim Shattuck (of The Muffs), and a little bit of Gwen Stefani (in the early No Doubt days, before her shit went bananas). Not Sorry is packed with hooks and harmonies, and yes, it’s perfect to pogo to. If I’d heard this album fifteen years ago, tracks from it would have wound up on every mix tape I made for years. As it stands now, I’ve been playing it non-stop, and humming the songs even when I’m not listening to the album.

There’s one more song I want to mention. I saved it for last, because it’s the crux of the album, and it’s Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s anthem. “Like, Seriously?” is their way of embracing the things that might make people think less of them (they’re a girl band and a pop punk band). It’s also an ‘up yours’ to their detractors: “Go fuck yourself, you can’t fuck with me. We’re already part of punk history,” they shout. Even the title of the song is brilliant – they phrased it in the parlance of Valley girls and teen girls, who often get looked down on for being ‘dumb’ because of the way they speak. As if!

A couple years ago, I got into a discussion with a punk bro about Wisconsin punk bands past and present. In this context, the word discussion should have heavy air quotes around it, because it was really him trying to one-up me by mentioning more and more obscure bands. He was waiting for me to say: “I’ve never heard of them,” but it didn’t work. Every band he brought up, I’d come back with: “Oh yeah, didn’t some of those guys go on to form this other band?” Or: “Yeah, I saw them play a house show back in ’99.” He started looking sweaty and nauseous, uncomfortable because it was dawning on him that a girl knew more about punk than he did. Then, I brought up a band he hadn’t yet mentioned, and he said: “They don’t even count, because they were a pop punk band.” “They don’t count? Uh, they got bigger than any of the other bands we’ve talked about, and also put on better shows than most of ‘em.” “Yeah, but they were pop punk, which isn’t real punk. Pop punk is for fags, girls, and posers.” At that point, I walked into the kitchen to get myself another drink – not because he’d won, but because I was two seconds away from punching him and I didn’t think it would be cool of me to start a brawl in my best friend’s apartment.

Now that I’ve gotten into Bad Cop/Bad Cop, I’m sorta hoping I’ll run into that bro. I’ll say: “Yeah, pop punk is for fags and girls, and I’m a queer girl!” I’ll say: “Lick my filthy Chucks, dude, I am a poser and I don’t care!” I’ll make him listen to “Like, Seriously?” until his ears bleed, because the ladies of Bad Cop/Bad Cop don’t care about his boring opinions, either. “Clasp your hands, get on your knees,” they’ll sing to him. “You’re gonna worship our three part harmonies.”

Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. She writes about nostalgia, desire, identity, music, wild girls, and her misspent youth.

Babeo Baggins: POSI+IVE

“Barf” is one of those words that sounds like the thing that it is, a visual invocation that’s as unpleasant as it is accurate. Also known as “vomit,” which is somehow a less visceral word, barf is one of those things that’s connected to a whole slew of “bad” associations — of unsanitary bodily fluids; of motion sickness and uncontrollable nausea; of waking up with the day after drinking too much and feeling dehydration ripple through and ravage your body. But as it were, vomit also has some uniquely “feminine” associations, particularly those connected to bulimia (which, like most eating disorders, is oftentimes seen as a problem affecting mostly women) and to morning sickness, the early long-term nausea which afflicts pregnant people. To explicitly invoke barfing is to invoke disease and discomfort. Barf is chunky, barf is steaming, barf is gross.

Enter: Barf Troop, five babes rapping and stunting on the cis/het male-dominated rap world. Babe isn’t a placeholder for woman/girl specifically—since not all of the members of Barf Troop identify as a woman—but rather because of the pop culture-inspired monikers adopted by the group’s members: Babenstein, Babe Field, Babe Simpson, Babelien, and Babeo Baggins. Ferociously collaborative and protective of not just their unit but all members of the marginalized spaces they occupy and intersect at, Barf Troop is a squad that actually deserves the now oft-utilized label.

The group’s profile has been a slow build, rising from social media adoration to mainstream coverage. The next step is establishing their members as individual artists: regarding that, Babeo Baggins’s mixtape POSI+IVE premiered on THE FADER recently, and it delivers the next level of self-prophesied ascendence they’ve been promising for years.

POSI+IVE is an 11-song (kind of) mixtape ripped down the middle, split like a vinyl record between sides:  femme-fanged eviscerations on one side and more introspective tunes on the other. With the involvement of “new” faces (Childish Gambino) and old (producer Gobby, Barf Troop members Babe Simpson and Babenstein), it’s stylized and polished in a way that their earlier tunes weren’t, but still chock full of the barbs, bites, and personal touches that characterize their earlier efforts, whether it be slower, more classical vocal performances (like “Downtown,” which gets touched up here) or on superfast verses like the likes of “Cracked” (a spinoff of Japanese producer Qrion’s now signature iPhone notification rework) and “Little Bit” (a cover of, yes, the Lykke Li tune).

These two sides of Baggins’s ability—embodying both assassin and dreamer—go toe-to-toe on the tape, as they first establish their dominance and then work to peel back the layers of the performance. Opening track “Posi+ive” is a boast, the kind of music you play before you enter any arena of competition. After cyborg!Gambino intones “Welcome to POSI+IVE / do it with your own hands / who told you no?”, Baggins spends the rest of the mixtape doing just that. The rest of “Posi+ive” serves as a self-directed psych out and also a great motivational bit; if you don’t feel like the shit after that track, then there’s no saving you for the rest of the tape.

But oh, that would be such a misstep. From Side A: “Team” is a three-way stunt between Baggins, Babenstein, and Simpson as they unleash the equivalent of “I win, you lose!” at anybody who’s ever doubted their collective efforts, while “Rumble” (and its iPhone aural imagery) doubles with the tape art as an actually potent fight song: it’s brawl music, belligerent music, the audio equivalent of a knife fight. “Hoes” takes Ludacris’s kind of gross ode to his ladies on the side and transforms the sentiment into something both funnier and (actually) empowering; a less showy “Anaconda” for the millennial set. That said, it’s “Hero” (with Babe Simpson) that works the best out of this opening block, and not just because of its Adventure Time sample: “You know, you know / you know I’m your hero,” Baggins chants against cheerleader shouts, and the effect is something distinctly, yes, positive, but just shy of sweet. “There’s nothing to fear / ‘cause all your friends are here” against high times at church; adoptions of heroics even as they rap about stealing somebody’s man: “He’s a villain in the streets / I’m a hero in the sheets / if you know what I mean.”

All the posturing isn’t without its flip side, and Baggins doesn’t shy away from exposing the raw nerves at the root of their pugnaciousness. Kicking off Side B is “Beg,” a dense, dizzy piece of music, the closest Baggins gets to making any sort of concession to weakness. That push and pull between adopted performance and the reality of working and living that performance pushes at the seams on “Underdog,” with its swinging jazz club undertow, and “Downtown,” my first introduction to Babeo and also somewhat of an anomaly for its sound (which is almost like a placid Purity Ring), though not for its lyrical content. But it’s “Daffodils” that really drives the emotional stake through the second half of the mixtape. As Baggins puts it:

This song requires a bit of an explanation. This song was written when I first accepted my gender identity(genderfulid) [sic]. I was deeply in love with a girl who had a boyfriend at the time but told me that I couldn’t treat her as well as he could because I wasn’t a boy. That struck a cord with me because I felt like a boy when I was with her and that made me realize I actually felt like a boy a lot more than I thought I did. I began to struggle with being a women but having all these feelings that did not match that vision in my head, remembering times at a younger age where I NEVER felt like a “girl” and I would argue with my mother about the fact. Being in love with this girl made all those memories come flooding back to me and it me realize that I wasn’t JUST a girl, I never had been. I was a boy too and it was painful to feel like I would never be able to show her how much she meant to me because I would never be a “boy” in her eyes. This song means a lot to me.

And it’s in a moment like that that the importance of Babeo and their fellow Barf Troop artists comes into place. In our current hyper-heterosexualized music industry, especially within that genre, who else but those who live within or against its margins could drag those boundaries outward? Sure, there are people pushing against those constraints in the current mainstream soundscape, but the meat of the solution will be bubbling up from the underground, as Barf Troop did. That Babeo, in their major debut in the genre scene, didn’t compromise any inch of their passion, wit, and politics is still, sadly but also joyfully so, brave, and most importantly, POSI+IVE is true — to its creator, surely, but also to the kinds of experiences, motivations, and desires that are expressed through, embodied it, and emboldened by it.

Lilian Min is a culture writer living in West Hollywood. When she’s not standing on her tiptoes and typing set lists into her phone at shows, she’s a contributing editor at HelloGiggles.

Jazmine Sullivan’s “Reality Show”

Just ‘cause I love you and you love me
It doesn’t mean that we’re meant to be
I can climb mountains, swim ‘cross the seas
But the most frightening thing is you and me

Jazmine Sullivan was 23 and exhausted, which is generally considered a bad sign. She could already count eight Grammy nods and a radio hit so sticky it found itself bastardized on every karaoke machine programmed beyond January of 2010 among her personal accomplishments. After clawing her way through an adolescence rife with back-up gigs and broken contracts, she had established commercial success on her own terms; a little bruised, perhaps, but fundamentally un-bowed. Her unmistakable gift, the nimble alto bray heaving with sincerity once considered too “church” for the pop charts, had finally staked a platform high enough to cast a worthy shadow. “Fearless” knocked; that’s indisputable. Reggae, techno, and doo-wop inflections buoyed Sullivan’s spectacular rasp through the sort of vignettes that frame feeling like photography. Here was an R&B album fusing neo-soul’s testimonial lyricism with a risky, integrative soundscape assumed to be the domain of white indie artists; more importantly, here was a black girl voicing her particular truth on a massive scale. She was speaking over fear and sex and hope and vengeance—the elements, the irregular gems of a heart-led life.

“Love Me Back” followed. She wore Balmain in the video for the album’s lead single. The songs were slicker, not as strange. See, the tricky bit about a heart-led life, as the perpetually flushed know a little too well, is how fast it flares to urgent, burning blue. Everything had to stop. So, she stopped it. She logged on Twitter, announced a three-month hiatus from the industry, and promptly disappeared for four and a half years, the approximate time it takes to sever ties with a man whose apologies never made it hurt less. She retreated to her mother’s basement in Atlanta. She gained forty pounds. She wrote new songs based on no-name production samples she found on the Internet. She watched every single episode of Love & Hip Hop with baited breath.  She healed, slowly, at a pace that felt tenable.

What resulted, a brilliant body of work aptly titled “Reality Show”, served to defang a wound that seemed to grow its own teeth over time. Her label released “Dumb”, a militaristic hip-hop anthem featuring an enthusiastic but somewhat out-classed Meek Mill, in May of 2014. Public fanfare felt woefully minimal. I first heard the track on the morning bus to my comfy but boring office job, latte in hand, halfway through an apology text to a man for an unexpected 7 a.m. crying episode on his chest. I still have a habit of apologizing when I’m upset, actually. I’ve tried to address it–my politics hate that sort of behavior–but claiming space for my rage, rage built for hurt, especially, proves more difficult than Katy Perry or Beyoncé might give it credit. Jazmine, on the other hand, busts car windows, no questions asked, but it’s the gravel casing her conflicts that really packs tinder under my skin. I listened to “Dumb” that summer like her voice might make me taller. I sang a scale-collapsed version in the shower over and over again until my throat could whip around her riffs like wind. I thought we were past these days; no more games, I believed. But what I hate the most is you THINK you’re so smart, you THINK you’re fooling me. “Reality Show” dropped five days before I started my submersion in a brand new, biting bath. Given that her lyrics compare sex to heroin, it’s only appropriate the production swells with descent; deep base, moans as verse punctuation, stuttering high-hats, the works. It’s dramatic, theatrical, even, but so are the forty-second-long melismas scratching the ceiling of her upper register. So are her Chaka Khan-inspired wigs. And, damn, if love isn’t half-pageantry anyway, if the performative lineage R&B owes to jazz and gospel wasn’t born out of a defiant, effusive impulse to survive, then heartache might be negligible after all. Pain with precedent seems noble, and Jazmine’s pain created art. Rather, her genius forged music in the hearth pain made. That’s the vital distinction.

When he call your name and you just gotta have it
Love me all the wrong ways, my bad habit
Hold me close while you take me away
I just want to scream your name

Pull me back
Turn me out
Fuck me up

May ended weakly, as did the mourning period I prescribed myself. The residue of a just-done love pills in ways friends and parents never mentioned to me, though. I wasn’t warned how it might corrode the closure I bound tight in reams of hardened faith, and now I wear my distraction like a smudge of someone else’s lipstick—okay, I’m lying—like a cattle brand, like so many vessels burst. I’m fine, I’m better, but I’m also smaller. I’m a little bit less. The unsaved numbers in my phone confirm this on nights I can’t sleep. I don’t have time for sadness, really, but presence, at my best friend’s birthday, across a table on a first date, only glints in my periphery at this point, taunting me with the possibility of an equally bullshit June. That muddled feeling of having left an unfinished book on the train fogs every pane of my conscience. I’m folding shirts I didn’t buy. I’m exhaling the wrong name into stranger’s necks. But none of these symptoms touch the real problem, because the real problem, the problem that contributes most to my daily vertigo, is this weird, pathological disinterest in heeding the weather. Maybe I can chalk it up to narcissism or an out-sized investment in baring skin too early in the season, but I find myself ducking into cab after cab to hide from rain I should have known was coming. Three weeks ago I dampened the back of an Uber with a soaked miniskirt. “Forever Don’t Last”, an acoustic ballad Jazmine penned to cremate her last breakup, drifted coarsely from the driver’s radio. I felt the follicles rise on every inch of my skin when she ground her soprano against the purple pluck of a bass guitar; So every time I wanna call, Baby what always helps…is when I think of the pain, and I realize I’m better off by myself.

“I’m really sorry, could you turn this off?”

“Turn here? That’s not the way back to Rodney.”

“No, sorry, the radio. Can you just turn it off? Or change the station?”

“What if I just turn it down?”

“Sure. Sure, yeah.”

I fingered my phone and mulled over a painting I had visited uptown earlier that afternoon. Wisdom and Strength, it’s called. Veronese made it, so the composition draws on a peculiarly Venetian appetite for moralization and all manner of shiny shit. A stout female figure representing Divine Wisdom gazes searchingly towards heaven, and Hercules, rendered in umbers, stares at Wisdom’s sandals, surveying the riches strewn beneath her feet. The words OMNIA VANITAS, “All is Vanity”, unfurl across the painting’s lower left. The closer I moved to the piece, the brighter the glare on it’s cracked, pale surface shone just above my eye line, and my attempts at excavating a dead master’s secrets proved stupid in seconds. Predictable. Electric light had transmuted the magic of mimesis back to two dimensions, back to imagistic objecthood. I saw the reflected hollows of my face crackling in its final glaze.

Listen, transcendence can’t cover me, or Jazmine, or any shadow either of us has ever tried at. All we’ve got is the grime in our joints and hot, wet muscles ready to pulse in response, the naked crime light insists upon when love stumbles for its footing. Ignoring the rain won’t help. So I’ll retreat to my mother’s basement in Massachusetts. I will incubate ideas that matter to me. I will watch every episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta with baited breath and water the raucous laugh spring felled inside my stomach until it grows back bigger.  I will heal, slowly, at a pace that feels tenable. I will emerge in September steeped in loss-wrought beauty, stiffer than iron, more booming color than girl. My body, un-winnowed, will occupy new meaning.  And when I hear the DJ at my Uber driver’s radio station of choice coo solemnly, “If you love people, they will always disappoint you”, I won’t nod my head.

L-l-learn from my mistakes
Because it isn’t too late
For you to get up and run
Please just don’t be dumb
Because you have a choice
To go run after them boys
Or take over the world
Don’t be a stupid girl


Torey is an east-coast gin enthusiast currently receiving her MFA in painting somewhere needlessly far from the ocean. More grown men have caught her eating ham out of a bag than she is comfortable reporting. Her mom is way, way funnier than she is. 

Absolution by way of Florence + the Machine’s HOW BIG, HOW BLUE, HOW BEAUTIFUL

Writing about music has always been wrapped up in the same language other people use to talk about the divine for me. I feel closer to some sort of central energy force when I’m standing at a concert with the floor vibrating below my feet than I do in any church or during any conversation about God. Nothing makes me feel like any sort of higher-plane communication is possible more than laying flat on my back with my hands crossed over my stomach and my eyes closed and headphones over my ears. There are albums that make me play at devout; sitting silent and steady somewhere, music turned up so loud that it’s almost overwhelming, letting it wash over me. Letting it absolve.

There is something here that does that for me. Maybe it’s because it seems like Florence Welch herself best knows how to write music when she’s using the language of the divine (saints are called out by individual name and by pluralized concept, we hear about crucifixes in the same breath as the Hollywood sign, “Mother” pleads with a lord figure and talks about heaven and talks about kneeling all in one pretty gospel-inflected package), but every time I open my mouth to talk about How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, I feel like I might choke on my tears. It’s why this review is a week late, actually. I couldn’t figure out how to put that sort of emotion, that much emotion, into words.

There is expansiveness at work on this album that feels almost overwhelming, although when you compare it to the non-stop witchery and heavy doses of harp on Ceremonials (an album I love, don’t get me wrong), there’s something nearing subtlety in a song like “Various Storms & Saints,” which starts slow and almost bare and steadily builds in arrangement, volume, and anger. What I mean about HBHBHB is that it doesn’t feel as fragile as Ceremonials, partially because Flo’s powerhouse vocals aren’t the only source of strength sonically here. There are swells of string and thunderous horn sections; the general feeling here is not a dew-flecked spiderweb in the light of a full moon like Ceremonials or even Lungs, but a lush, crowded garden in the noon sun, on its way to a little too hot and a little too much but god don’t the roses smell good this time of year? Even the softer songs, the slow-builders like “Long & Lost,” have an attitude to them, an almost bluesy swagger as the foundation, beneath all their bare vulnerability. The instrumental arrangements are as strong and as vital as her vocals and it’s an album standing securely, solidly, on two feet as a result.

At its most base level, the album is an exercise in catharsis. Not just despair, although there are certainly songs that could break your heart they are so sorrowful (like “Long & Lost, which I mentioned above, a song that includes the line “Are you missing me? Is it too late to come on home?”, or “Queen of Peace” asking “What is it worth when all that’s left is hurt?”). There’s also the bright burn of anger here, like Flo decided the best way to handle it was to contain and let it burn wild until there were only embers left behind. I talked about this a little when I talked about “Delilah,” about how the lead tracks seemed to have an almost righteous fury to them that stands out from previous efforts. It’s part of why this album resonates with me in a way the first two don’t; I understand anger. I understand “make up your mind, before I make it up for you / the executioner is within me / and he comes blindfold ready, sword in hand.” I get needing to scream until you can’t catch your breath to keep screaming because having it bottled up deep in your gut isn’t an option anymore.

But—and here is the vital thing, the thing that makes it an album about absolution and the cleansing power of fire, of fury, rather than the wrath of a woman scorned—through that all there is hope. There are the first tentative steps to piecing yourself back together on the other side of leveling everything you knew because there was something broken and rotten at the foundation. Look at “Third Eye” (you don’t have to be a ghost, here amongst the living; you are flesh and blood / you deserve to be loved). Look at “St. Jude” (and I’m learning, so I’m leaving). Look at “Delilah” (I’m gonna be free and I’m gonna be fine). This is Florence as phoenix, rising from the ashes, newborn and vulnerable but renewed and washed clean by the flames.

When you get down to it, I haven’t been able to listen to anything else, even though I’ve had to reapply my eyeliner three times right before work since the album was released. I’m devoted. (And, for what it’s worth, my absolute favorite song on the album is “Which Witch,” even though it only appears on the deluxe version. For a particularly cathartic combination, I recommend “Various Storms & Saints” followed by “Make Up Your Mind” followed by “Which Witch.”)

The Ephemeral Lift of Made in Heights

The album opens with a giggle, but there’s something dark lurking beneath the playfulness. Fitting, as the name of the song is “Death.” The album in question, Without My Enemy What Would I Be, is itself a question: Who is the enemy? Who is the I? You never quite find out, but LA-based duo Made in Heights (stylized as MADE IN HEIGHTS, as well as :∆:) makes a compelling case for mystery on their sophomore release.

Many of the songs on Enemy have been around for years as tracks on the band’s strange, sparse Soundcloud. In fact, only 5 of the album’s 13 songs are previously unreleased, but vocalist Kelsey Bulkin (a former wedding singer) and producer Sabzi (Alexei Saba, of Blue Scholars) have been carefully curating one of the most polished sonic visions of the past few years. A cursory listen through both Enemy and their self-titled debut reveal some immediate sonic motifs: a skittering, paranoid snare weaving in and out of bass bombs, bouncy synths, stylized creaks, what seems to be a stuttering wood block, and soaring above the instrumentals (notable enough to warrant their own album), Bulkin’s almost unreal, gossamer sheen voice.

With a sound aesthetic like that, the name Made in Heights seems perfect: it signals aerial rapture, a lifetime spent observing the ground from a cloudline spire. The image, as well as the word “heights” itself, does have mirrors in their lyrics— “It’s alright to falter from these heights” on “Mantis,” and “Dreaming without blinking / without thinking about heights right now” on “Ghosts.” The band even confirmed as much, explaining that their music exists “from the heights” to an interview with LA radio DJ Anthony Valadez. But even as they seek to explore their music from a rarefied POV, it’s clear that Bulkin and Saba are more interested in the earth below: their lyrics are sonic sketches centered on softly filtered love and intense, introspective spirals. “Imagination playing tricks on me,” Bulkin sings on “Murakami,” ostensibly a tribute to the strange universes of the Japanese writer, and the fear in her voice weighs it down as the track builds to a sequence of digital horns punching through the background. This dynamic plays through the entire album — Bulkin acting as the sickly sweet bait, while Saba’s production spares and strikes in equal measure. (Listen: “Pirouette” vs. “Mantis.”) The only time the band makes a serious misstep is, in fact, when Bulkin attempts to chime in on the band’s “streets” image (more on that later) by rapping, on “Pop It in 2.”

Their Soundcloud eschews traditional genre tags like “pop” or “electro” in favor of fantasy slugs. Album one fit “neatly” under the category “Mythical Filth,” fitting with its oftentimes woozy, celestial discord. (Listen: “Skylark Interabang?!”) The trappings of Enemy are all there, but everything seems grander, a little bit dramatic — the quiet girl in school suddenly making an entrance decked head to toe in only flowers and sporting a grill. It is a debut designed to turn heads and mark territory, and its unevenness can be chalked up to those other goals.

Enemy is a much more polished final product, not least because the band had been slowly building and revealing its stable of songs and attracting mainstream outlets (Noisey, Complex, Stereogum) in the process. The duo seems to be getting more serious in the process too; early tongue-in-cheek Soundcloud tags like “BEAUTY SLAP” have given way to the very practical “Made in Heights,” though the music itself hasn’t suffered from these surface-level image changes. Previously released songs like “Pirouette,” “Murakami,” “Slow Burn,” and “Forgiveness” are just about perfect, sparkling pop nuggets with desperate depth, while “Lunette” and “Silver Drops” pull their weight among the new tracks (which are generally slower, more contemplative tunes). The songs run the gamut from plaintive love songs to dance floor jams; through it all, Bulkin’s voice shines like a beacon, guiding listeners to auditory harbor.

But sound and music are only part of the Made in Heights mythos; equally important to the band, and clearly so, is their visual presentation. Beyond the stylization of their name, there is the album cover itself, as well as the string of images used as song covers throughout the Soundcloud releases.

With the exception of “Mantis,” the song “covers” have veered toward a specific aesthetic: the same font, the same font placement, and images of Bulkin and Sabzi as slivers, never quite together, and using the appropriate image as a mirror for the song it’s attached to: “Pirouette” tied to the voyeuristic gaze of a not-quite-lost lover; “Forgiveness” as sharpness and neatness; “Murakami” as a deviation, pouncing on the listener like… well, you get it. The images are strange, with neither the intimacy or the clear detachment that most modern pop groups go for in their imagery. And lest you think this has only been the case for this album cycle…

…their longtime social icon begs to differ, and also stands as a metaphor for their own musical style: touching upon matters of the world, while remaining removed from it, balancing at the fringes of established genre in order to carve out their own sound, rather than their own portion of an existing sound. Made in Heights falls within the larger realm of electropop, but the style they’ve created, despite its seemingly under the radar existence, is tied together in part by their ability to project such a uniformed image — and have almost nothing else as a band mythos for listeners to tap into.


But a large part of what does exist is, well, discordant; Bulkin and Saba (or at least whoever does their social media) speak in the boundaryless Internet lingo that belies both their IRL appearances and the music they make, and through their lyrics, they verbally posture with toy guns though they exist above the streets (another colloquial form of ”heights”) that they speak of and the violence that often occupies such areas. (This itself isn’t new, especially in the “influence”-heavy pop world.) Yet, a cursory look at their store suggests that they’re just as interested in spreading an idea about a lifestyle as they are about their music, with the latter as a means to the former. It’s not a foreign concept, to expect listeners to be deeply connected to a series of songs versus the people behind them (an antithesis to all those “humanizing” reality show montages), but Bulkin and Saba practice their divorce from those notions out even in real life, preferring to dress in solid, stark colors both in promotional photos and during performances, deferring to their music and abstract symbols as unphysical avatars. Like many others, they are a product, but deliberately so, and so their highest art is their music-made identity and by extension, the absence of their actual selves.

Lilian Min is a culture writer living in West Hollywood. When she’s not standing on her tiptoes and typing set lists into her phone at shows, she’s a contributing editor at HelloGiggles.