Written by: Dave Cantrell
Have to admit that, like pretty much all of us, your correspondent is a sucker for an intriguing, unusual band name. Whether it makes you cock your head with curiosity or causes a silently gasped ‘Wow’ that simultaneously flutters your heart for a moment – personally, in that latter category, none will ever better 90s Boston band Drop Nineteens – nothing, not even a pre-debut wave of Tik-Tok hype, grabs our attention like, well, an attention-getting name. The key, however, the inescapable catch, is that then they have to live up to it. The music cannot disappoint, not a jot. Fortunately for all concerned, band and fan alike, the wonderfully WTF?-named Austin trio Don’t Get Lemon (the band prefer lowercase but editorially that’s just too awkward) has quashed any such worries since first emerging in late 2019 with intro EP Grey Beach. Frankly startling in its full-formedness, that debut has been followed by a steady stream of strength-to-strength releases – among them the diverse array that is the Forward Not Forgetting EP and a New Order 40th anniversary commemorative single last September – that continued whetting appetites for what would surely be the glory hallelujah wonderment of their first full-length. Now it’s arrived (March 29th on à La Carte) we can all bask in the happy satisfaction of having our faith not only upheld but boosted a fair few steps past our already elevated level of expectation.
Going back to that beginning for a moment, past the quirk of the name and before dropping the digital needle on that initial offering, the choice in spelling the title as they had couldn’t help but give subtle indication to the influences contributing to the DGL sound and indeed it does hew a bit toward a certain period of late post-punk from that so-called sceptr’d isle where the skies can somehow appear more ‘grey’ than ‘gray.’ Further confirmed by that cover outing mentioned above, the ride through a territory we may as well dub ‘Lone Star Manchester. continues apace, the tracks made in the process striking that lovely mix of wholly unique – no one sounds like this band – and compellingly comforting.
Hurtling into the fray with a mix of grace and subdued fury, first track “The Film Star’s Car,” aside from being an unabashedly poptastic romp, seems hellbent on marking out a territory as closely congruent to the concept suggested by the allusive title as any song could. The template set, the gauntlet thrown, on the trio proceed, tossing off a compact album’s worth of gems like garlands thrown from some ghostly parade float festooned with glamorous black dahlias and snaking vine.
The otherwise sunny, near Smithsian “Begin Again (or End?)” sweeps by with plenty of quiet menace clanging in the shadows, the frankly astonishing “Industrial (Amusement) Park (Revolution)” follows, all sinuous subcurrents and sumptuous despair, while “D.I.E.I.N.T.H.E.U.S.A.”‘s sorrowful if trenchant if weary lament regarding the whorl of lost intent we hope against hope that we’re not sliding into is, oh yeah, a brilliant tune to boot. There there’s “Black Tarmac” bursting into full bloom at the 1:17 mark, the song suddenly obtaining a level of holy shit that’s great! that was theretofore scarcely hinted at in the prelude, fetching though is it, the record’s first single (released last September) “Working Man’s Ballet” taking a jangle vibe and dousing it in a suitably saturnine gouache before “Purple Hair Kingdom” escorts us off this Heaven‘s premises under pale, gently wounded clouds, a brave little smile gracing its expression as if stuck in a state of perpetual/ephemeral bliss however troubled.
So, what’s in a name? Well, everything and nothing, really, a blithe conundrum that Don’t Get Lemon seem to embrace with something approaching a serious nonchalance. Certainly the genius and odd promise in their name and the notice it no doubt brings doesn’t hurt but it’s those same qualities in their work that matters and in that regard DGL haven’t any worries. The place these tracks in all their nuance and confidence take us is one where emotional resonance and intuitive suss are found in dual abundance, tethered together in a kind of intimate tension just as they are in all the songs we’re ever loved. [DO get don’t get lemon’s Hyper Hollow Heaven here]
Reality’s the thing, isn’t it? While all of us enjoy – in the musical sense – at least the occasional caper through the Medusa-like filigrees and backlit, upside-down crosses of this dark phantasmagorical landscape we like to claim as our ancestral home, slinking like naïfs and phantoms through all those escapist shadows booming with baritone portent, fantasy-harshing reality is always waiting right outside the door once the club lights come up. Thus it is that those songs that carry the dark seductive charms of that doom-like pleasure (oh the age-old lure of that paradox) out into the cruelly mundane world of shared everyday life tend to be the ones that endure and, in fact, define the canon, a point no more easily underscored by murmuring the words ‘joy’ and ‘division.’ It’s a fundamental aesthetic truth that Peter Endall, once of 80s antipodean synth-wavers Schizo Scherzo and newly returned with solo project Suburban Spell has, based on the evidence provided by this debut, absorbed down to the molecular level.
While at an overall audio glimpse this second Spell album Split Levels is, much like the self-titled debut that burst over the banks a year ago January, dancey as hell, and in fact eclipses that initial offering in terms of what we might term the ‘primal beat imperative’ (“Control” itself, as elastic as it is poundingly insistent, is enough to cause limb-loosening embarrassment out on the tiles), any idea of flat-out, four-on-the-floor synth-based hedonism breaks down as the lyrics and just the record’s prevailing mood soak into your consciousness. As you listen here it’s a gloaming that settles over you and decides to stay a while, its shades a bit umber even as its glow of undying light persists.
Initially intended as a purely instrumental venture a la Jean Michael Jarre – along with Kraftwerk one of Endall’s core touchstones – which explains that debut sporting more vox-free tracks than not, it’s clear by this point that the imperishable presence of the human voice has become centrally vital to this artist’s process as all but the two pieces bookending this album are anchored by Peter’s more-than-serviceable vocals. Those two end-pieces, however – haunting springboard “Edge of the Cloud” and closer “Behind the Other Cloud,” full of pensive intrigue while swirling with hope – pull double duty by both honoring said influences and lending Split Levels the passing cachet of a concept album. That said, it’s what’s within those two cloudy poles that secures what’s quickly destined to become the ‘Suburban Spell legacy.’
“Guilty,” despite its title, glides along on a shimmering, smoothly frantic vibe as if soundtracking a Euro-video car chase that’s nonetheless moving at an eerily slo-mo breakneck, freewheeling but taut, “The Lonely Man” is sufficiently – if non-slavishly – Numanesque it could be dedicated to the guy, blessed as it is with that similar, elusive but striking ‘iciness-with-a-human-heart.’ Operating inside a melancholic dream state, the marvelously-named “Keeping Shtum” muddles the currents of sadness and bliss into a singularly glorious – and moving – torrent, “Feel No More” lurks in a robotic netherworld before “Driving at Night” returns us to the visceral, full of yearn and aspiration, escapism with a touch of regret. The mini-epic “Fools and Clowns,” meanwhile, could well be held up as an Endallian mission statement, roaming far and wide through those synth-laden landscapes we all wish we lived in, extra-planetary yet grounded at its very center to this lovely doomed planet, all the while, as a tune, never for a moment losing its delicate focus.
And, really, right there we have the gist. Endall so generously endows his work with what we’re deciding to call a ‘relatable transfixion’© that it leaves him virtually no choice but to name this project as he has. It will take you for rides that can feel trance-worthy and a bit (or a lot) otherworldly but every time you look out the emotional window there it is, this life we live in, as challenging maybe as always but now lacquered with an extra coat of gleam. Analogies and searches for meaning aside, let us simply say that this is one of our favorite records of the year thus far. [go under the Suburban Spell here]
In directions both good and bad, and for the vast majority of us a complicated mix of both, pandemics have a way of pushing us. For two years plus we’ve been forced to navigate paths and obstacles and unforeseen detours in an effort to, OK, to not die first off but, beyond mere survival, to figure out what exactly the point is. No surprise but little brings frank appraisal of one’s existential purpose on this troubled blue dot turning circles through the vastness of space like being trapped inside your proverbial four walls that have never looked more deadeningly familiar nor, for that matter, more, well, ‘wallish.’ Into this cloistered breach stepped our everything, our ambition, our relationships, our very sense of self, the prospect overall crowded with fear and possibility. As documented many times in these pages, a number of musicians took this invitation to worldwide solitary as an opportunity to focus as best they could either on a project stalled for any multitude of reasons or on creating something new out of whole pandemic cloth. Not as easy nor automatic a proposition as it may seem in theory – constantly bumping into yourself while in isolation can present its own challenging host of issues – this strange self-exile that fell upon us all perhaps most advantaged (again, in theory) those artists with an already-begun effort that, if not stalled per se, was in a state where it could use some fresh perspective, some fresh energy, thereby in essence folding those old-vs-new impetuses into a singular drive. It was that particular crossroads that Leo Skaidas, DBA Cinemascope, found himself that fateful late winter of 2020.
Having emerged in 2014 with highly-regarded first album Stains of Love (also on Brazil’s Wave Records), Skiadas, at the time our new Year Zero struck, already had the eight tracks for the second Cinemascope record ready to go but, sensing the potential inherent, decided – wisely, as it’s now clear to see – to take something that in its then-current form was quite good and make it into something great. To that rarefied list of ‘waits that were very much worth it’ may now be added A Crack in the Wall.
Building considerably on the blueprint laid out those eight years ago and in the process creating a sound that moves the band all that much closer to the width and breadth implied by its name, the tracks on Wall strike a stronger, more immediate tone. While to no small extent down to the addition of crack, near-legendary Greek guitarist Johnny Papaiannou, the bulk of the credit for the next-level reach heard here goes to the guy writing the songs (oh, and by the way, produces and sings and plays every other instrument on the record). From opener “Ocean,” awash in beautiful atmospheric doom that ultimately takes the stakes laid out by Modern English on Mesh & Lace and raises them up a notch or two (see also the unexpectedly glistening “Die in Summer”), and the darkly ringing expanse of final track “Let Me Be Angel,” layered with finesse and as moving as any mini-epic should be, this album as well as any of the many others in recent years underscores, from still another corner, the vigorously rude health our little scene is in everywhere around the world.
Whether one considers the pace and craft of “Vicious Circle Game” as injecting momentum into melancholy or the other way around ultimately matters not as it’s such a satisfying drive through our darkwave dreams that critical assessment quickly gives way to quiet delirium. Less quiet and in fact damn near rumbustious, “In Silence’ thrusts its indignation, its barely restrained anger forward thanks to a crisp relentless bass and a melodic crush of guitar while the plain gorgeous “Fall” and the plain poignant “Sometimes” create a late album tandem that alone is compelling enough to convince you to buy this record. All that aside, however, it’s perhaps the gently cathartic centerpiece “Leaving is My Way to Breathe” that most convinces, the personal hurled into the universal as it conjures that conflicted emotional resonance that savors as much as it regrets the impulse, the need, to flee.
Even if nothing else had held throughout this endless COVID moment, the fact that the temperament of Skiadas’s vision hung together in all its understated but nonetheless undeniable glory is at least one more blessing we can count, and for that we can but say Ευχαριστώ, Leo, eυχαριστώ. [Go all Cinemascope here] [feature photo courtesy the author]