My last piece, on the ACL lineup the day after its release, ended with an acknowledgment that “my own verdict on Dayglow is incomplete and evolving,” nodding to Sloan Struble’s inclusion on the ACL bill for the second time in his career.
Just in case you interpret this entry kicking off with a review of Dayglow’s Harmony House to mean Ear Traffic is now some sort of Tommy-ish concept blog, where one entry bleeds naturally into the next … rest assured, it’s not. But I did know that Struble had Harmony House out. And I knew that I’d probably feel obligated to get to it here, seeing as Struble is perhaps just behind Black Pumas in terms of local artists making new national noise over the past two to three years. So, below lies a verdict, with an explanation of what the hell I meant by that statement in the first place.
The 21-year-old Aledo-to-Austin transplant (and recent UT student) already had a major hit single under his belt, 2018’s “Can I Call You Tonight?” “Close to You,” released earlier this year and included on Harmony House, is finding considerable success of its own. Commercially, synth-pop’s near-takeover of alternative and indie rock music means this second full-length shouldn’t blunt Struble’s considerable momentum.
Artistically, that near-takeover is a sore spot for me; at least, it can be. Synth-pop’s often-unerring commitment to gentle, polished musical sensitivity — basically, opting for a soft, damp cloth instead of the steel wool of compression pedals – sands down everything that, in my implicit musical biases, is supposed to make alternative live up to its name.
In the most superficial examination of his music, Struble as Dayglow would seem to fit that mold with precision. His voice, poetics, instrumentation and programming go down the gullet without any hint of a burn. He’s my father ever-so-gently and patiently knocking on my bedroom door to wake me up when I was a kid, when as a musical listener, I often want the urgent, intimidating pound of an FBI/SWAT team raid.
With that explanation out of the way, Harmony House is undeniably higher-end synth-and-laptop alt-pop, and Struble’s beyond-his-years songwriting makes it comfortably a record of strength and a rewarding listen.
And with “Something,” it even starts off with a poppy electronic aggressiveness, urgency and even punk-ish brevity (less than two minutes) that might be as spiky as Struble gets. It’s an off-the-bat standout that leads quickly to others, including “Medicine,” a well-produced and lyrically crafted (“I wasn’t made to be medicine for you”) midtempo offering with a Phoenix-sounding chorus and a gently hooky guitar solo. The hummable “Balcony” paints cinematic images of regret (“I wish you would’ve come down, talk to me/I see you standing on that balcony/Oh, I wish I did not just see that/Thought I would’ve thought to think it through”).
With “Crying on the Dancefloor,” Struble shows similar ability to dream up emotionally impactful movie-ish scenes in song. But his lyric carries it more so than the tepid ’80s-ish production (including an overpolished sax solo). In fact, the overcommitment to that decade’s sanitized production beds make up most of the album’s stumbles; “Into the Blue,” in particular, sounds uncannily like the soundtrack from an ’80s movie prom scene, and that’s not a good thing.
But those moments where the nods to Reagan-administration pop get excessive are pretty rare. For the balance of Harmony House, it’s merely a starting point, rather than alpha and omega. The album winds itself down with Struble showing his best philosophical and introspective sides, with the acoustic-driven pep talk “Woah Man” and the chimey closer “Like Ivy” showing a little of each. “And each day I’m growing up like ivy/The leaves surround me, I can’t see a thing/And time moves at the strangest of paces/On a daily basis, it’s recurring to me,” Struble sings on the latter. Guy has life figured out: It’s never solved.
So, verdict on Dayglow as reflected on Harmony House: Solid. Real solid, with Struble’s songwriting sometimes rising well above that. *** 1/2 stars out of 5
Kendra Sells, All in Your Head (EP)
For music critics or the blogger class, calling an artist or a record “challenging” can sometimes be a euphemism for, “Normal, casual music listeners would never listen to this for, you know, enjoyment.” That C-word can be more of a call to “learn to appreciate art,” rather than acquiring a taste you’d genuinely want to taste again sometime.
But All in Your Head, the debut solo EP for local singer Kendra Sells, is challenging in the right way — the accessible way. It’s “challenging” not because it tests your patience or musical attention span, but because it’s often naturally uncategorizable, and because it’s a nervous jumble, shifting rhythms, directions and dynamics on a dime. There’s a bit of a sense of chaos across this seven-track, 20-minute effort that doesn’t always hit, but never fails to keep you interested in what comes next.
Sells recently told the Austin Chronicle about past frustrations she’s experienced with racially influenced genre pigeonholing. To all but the listeners most desperate to put every song they hear in a basic genre bucket, All in Your Head will duly defy easy bucketing. Sells’ smooth pipes and her production choices shape-shift in numerous engaging which-ways away from anything wholly traditional.
Synth-y dude dismissal “Call Me When Ur Dead” carries a warm dream-pop bent, and the electro-jazz-ish opener “Your Cut” abruptly shifts gears a minute and 25 in, becoming … well, I listened to it twice in a row just to try to figure it out. It’s clubby and maybe even a little fusion-y, bolstered by a funky drum machine time signature.
The 2-in-1 track “Wondering//Bad Doctorzz” is the standout. “Wondering” is slinky hard-rock crunch through the laptop that awakens you as the first time straight rock is truly invoked, while “Bad Doctorzz” is either punk or post-punk, depending on how you split hairs. Sells tears into today’s health care inadequacies on increasingly more pointed fronts (“Bad doctors give you pills/When what you really need is sleep/They ask you how you feel/And then prescribe you what they think”) until she really “goes there”: “Bad doctors build a repertoire of writing people off/Say call us when you’re dead if you’re just worried ’bout a cough/You don’t look like my daughter and you don’t look like my son/If they don’t see a problem then they don’t believe there’s one.”
Because of brevity, EPs always face a higher bar for lofty star ratings, so the overall rating here won’t be particularly impressive. But in this engagingly skittering bit of whiplash, Sells expresses an intriguing vision for what she can do as a solo artist beyond what she’s been doing as part of jazzy San Marcos group BluMoon. Her leanings toward experimentation, and concerted effort to stay out of any bucket, make her one to bookmark. *** stars
girl in red, if i could make it go quiet
The talent Marie Ulven already showed the last few years has been as tantalizing as it is fully realized. In churning out one hormone-driven, darkly shaded dreamy or bedroom-y indie-pop gem after another, the now-22-year-old Norwegian who goes by girl in red already has shown enough songwriting ability and arresting vocal assertiveness to hint at a ridiculous ceiling. At the same time, if the dark-and-stark, under-the-stars romance of “We Fell in Love in October” (a deserved top 15 Billboard Hot Rock and Alternative Songs hit) or the uptempo booty-call regret of “Bad Idea” was as good as Ulven got, that would be plenty.
Ulven’s star is rising, and if the world is just, it will soon require a particularly powerful telescope after the release of her first LP. if i could make it go quiet (top album cover) is a controlled oil spill cataloguing every intensely edged, inflamed feeling that’s usually a natural product of being college-aged, through the filter of Ulven’s scathing and self-reflective pen. Whether wearing on her sleeve the runaway insecurity that comes with being cheated on (“Did You Come?”), realizing she’s been a selfish user (“hornylittlelovesickmess”) or laying out her mental health issues in an unsubtle, floor-rumbling indie-rap-pop masterpiece (the Finneas-produced “Serotonin”), Ulven has a well-honed, varied and moody command of words and tone. From “Did You Come?”, one favorite sample of how she takes young aggrievement and makes into something sharply special: “I can’t forgive, I can’t forget/I should have known you’re full of it/I’m not upset, I’m fucking pissed/I spelled it out, you’re illiterate.”
In basically seamless fashion, if i could make it go quiet blends two sides of a young artist’s evolution: the soar-and-haunt bedroom pop Ulven’s built a growing following with, and its developing application to pop aspirations made obvious by the recent release of “Serotonin.” “Rue,” previously released last year, offers a hooky chorus and some Lorde-like dynamic shifts to grandiosity. Even better, “You Stupid Bitch” is both affecting and funny, a same-sex variation on the Taylor Swift “You Belong With Me” theme, but vastly superior, with a Charli XCX-like pop charge and “ooh-oh-oh-oh” backing vocals to match. Ulven tears into a friend she’s always there for, who’s oblivious to the two of them being a perfect match: “You don’t know what you deserve/That’s why you end up hurt/But you never listen/Take my advice as criticism/Then make the worst decisions.”
While young artists are finding inroads to listeners’ ears more than ever today, few of them have all the tools. Ulven has them all and uses them all on if i could make it go quiet. girl in red might as well be a bedroom-pop superhero with a utility belt. **** 1/2 stars