10 Sub Pop-Sized Album Reviews

Midwife, Greg Mendez, Cusp and more.

10 Sub Pop-Sized Album Reviews

A couple weeks back I wrote about how much I enjoyed reading a compendium of Bruce Pavitt’s Sub Pop zines and newspaper columns. I loved his attentive ear, his candid criticism, his well-researched contextualization, and his incredibly persuasive voice, which he used to convey an admirably consistent balance of enthusiasm and skepticism.

I also just really loved the newspaper-sized format of his record reviews. I imagine it was mostly due to space constraints, but he only gave himself 150 words or less (often much less) for each blurb. For writers like myself who came up blogging on the internet, word counts were never something we really had to adhere to. For longform writing, that's obviously a huge boon. But I think there’s something to be said for strict word counts when it comes to music criticism. I think it’s objectively more difficult to say more with less, but I also think that most of the time, less says more.

As an exercise, I decided to review a bunch of new releases in the style of Pavitt’s Sub Pop writings. It was hard! He was really talented at condensing a convincing argument about a record into just a few sentences, or at most a mid-sized paragraph. Anyone who knows my writing (or has edited my work lol) knows that I’m guilty of running long, so it took a lot of effort to trim the fat on some of these and stick to what’s important. Less background, more opinion. The function of Pavitt's reviews was to tell you why to listen or why to dump it, and I gotta say, even the six-word fragments were more effective at getting me to smash “save” on Spotify than a 800-word Pitchfork review that I inevitably click out of after the first three grafs.

If I was being graded on this assignment, I’d probably earn a C+ for actually achieving Pavitt-sized brevity. Some of these are well over 150 words, but I can say for sure that all of them would’ve been longer if I wasn’t consciously trying to be succinct. Anyways, below are my thoughts on 10 recent albums and EP’s that’ve landed on my radar in one way or another.

Midwife, Vyva Melinkolya - Orbweaving

The prolific Midwife (a.k.a. hummer-guitarist Madeline Johnston) returns with her first new LP since 2021’s career-best Luminol, and it’s a collab with fellow Grouper protégé Vyva Melinkolya (a.k.a. Angel Diaz), whose 2020 Violet EP sounds like Slowdive crossed with Planning for Burial. Together, these artists make for a compelling pairing, but Orbweaving doesn’t really sound any different stylistically than Midwife’s previous solo LPs. Ethereal, hazy, wispy— all the cliché shoegaze adjectives are in effect here, but this really is music that sounds like it would slowly smolder into ash as the record spins on your turntable. “Hounds of Heaven” and “NMP” are two of Midwife’s best songs, perfecting her trance-inducing knack for numbing the ears with repetitious, doomy dirges that sound like Earth without any of the metallic power, braiding into your head through sheer force of will. Sadly, the closer is a woefully boring 12-minute feedback drone that exists simply to slap something on the vinyl’s B-side. The 20 minutes of actual material amounts to an EP’s worth of good stuff, and half of that stuff is utterly great. Still, I wish there was more actual music here. They spin you into a trip and then flip the lights on right as you’re peaking.

Never Ending Game - Outcry

Never Ending Game are the best heavy hardcore band of the last five years. These dudes sound like they use concrete slabs for picks and sticks, chiseling frigid riffs and knee-shattering mosh grooves that are as taut and precise as they are physically weighty. Guitarist Mike Wasylenko is both technical and tuneful, slotting in serpentine melodeath leads without neutering the burly grunts of vocalist Mikey Petroski, who sounds like Spike the Bulldog from Tom and Jerry but writes like Edgar Allen Poe on a Cold as Life binge. When Outcry’s on, you won’t be able to choose between putting your fist through drywall or poring over the lyric sheet while wiping away tears. Play it twice and do both.

Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean - Obsession Destruction

The Mariucz Lewandowski artwork. The nine-syllable band name. Twelve-minute songs with titles like “Ten Thousand Years of Unending Failure.” You know what kind of metal you’re getting here, but it’s been a while since I’ve heard a band do it this well. Chained… dole out a dense hour’s worth of spiritual annihilation on Obsession Destruction, bringing to mind low-and-slow nihilists like Amenra and Neurosis, but with a Southern U.S. sludginess — a stubble-faced nastiness — that's pure Eyehategod and Acid Bath. The production is towering (courtesy of The World Is a Beautiful Place…’s Chris Teti, an undersung savant) and as soon as a song gets too slow, the band let a charging riff blaze through on a warpath to the edge of the earth. Let this record throw you into the all-consuming blackness.

Total Wife  - UHFow/io

Welp, the They Are Gutting a Body of Water hanger-ons have emerged. This two-song single contains an uninspiring TAGABOW photocopy and a lifeless Duster rip. At a recent show in Pittsburgh, this band also did their best to emulate TAGABOW step by step, with a singer who turned their back to the crowd and fired off breakcore beats from their sampler in between songs. C’mon lol. However, in between the cosplay, this Nashville act unleashed crushing rounds of oppressive shoegaze noise, and the songs from their 2022 LP, A Blip, are fantastic; reminiscent of Peel Dream Magazine’s Agitprop Alterna in their fusion of suffocating, S/T-era My Bloody Valentine and perky, analog-synthy Stereloab bops. These folks possess a great sound of their own, so I hope they stop trend-chasing and hone in on what they already have. Seriously, A Blip is worth your while.

Grave Saddles - There You Ain’t

This is the second three-song EP in a row from California’s Grave Saddles, who’ve been forging “country-gaze” for as long as Wednesday have, but are moving in a slightly leaner direction on There You Ain’t. “Edible Arrangements” kicks up dirt with a propulsive jog, twangy vocal yelps, and a friendly wave of the whammy bar to early-Nineties Dinosaur Jr. Meanwhile, the limping, disheveled country-rock of “Pony Up” will appeal to people who need to hear a B-side from MJ Lenderman’s Boat Songs. I prefer “Willie Nelson Golfing Dream #3,” where there’s a twinge of Midwest emo in the weary guitar lick and the croaking vocals sound like J. Mascis-by-way-of-Weatherday. These songs are interesting but also mildly annoying. I think there’s something to this band that they themselves haven’t quite figured out yet, but in another three-songer or two, I think they might get there.

Cusp - You Can Do It All

Perhaps I’m partial to Cusp because they hail from my birthplace of Rochester, NY. Or maybe it’s because these Chicago transplants used to boast a couple members of the Philly new-gaze futurists Full Body 2. Or maybe because their record rules. This brisk self-release visits cordially with spikey, rickety indie-rock jaunts of the Exploding in Sound variety (RIYL Speedy Ortiz, Palehound and Ovlov’s side-project Stove) and then heads across town to dine with some truly gorgeous, shoegaze-ish pop songs. I say shoegaze-ish because there’s very little reverb on these vocals and the cramped drum production has an attic-like intimacy instead of a cathedral-sized sprawl. But I actually think that works in Cusp’s favor, allowing them to slip savvily between the fuzz-saw chonk of “Inside Out” and the snow-flurries-on-wool-sweater suppleness of the album’s mesmerizing, quasi-title-track. Rippling waves of guitar, circular grooves, oddly ornate choral harmonies — every song has something wondrous. Cusp truly can do it all.

Washer - Improved Means to Deteriorated Ends

Six years after their fantastic, and even more fantastically underrated, sophomore LP, All Aboard, Brooklyn’s Washer are back with more downwardly-mobile indie-rock; the kind that hasn’t been trendy in 30 years but, like a pair of well-worn black jeans, never goes out of style. Hard to tell if this batch is slightly less immediate than their last, but it has all the tenets of their unfussy, plainly alluring sound. Needle-nosed, concentric guitar licks and brisk drums; syrupy, always-a-little-off-key hooks that drip out of the cracks between Mike Quigley’s clenched teeth, and then splatter to the floor when he erupts in yelly, non-threatening fits of self-directed rage. Another great platter of honest, unvarnished, guitar-and-drums indie-rock that might not click until you find yourself humming along to three songs at once during tomorrow morning’s shower.

April Magazine - Wesley’s Convertible Tape From the South

Click to listen, Ghost.io doesn't support Bandcamp embeds -_-

April Magazine are leaders in a bubbling pocket of San Francisco indie-pop that also includes Cindy, the Telephone Numbers, Sad Eyed Beatniks, Flowertown and more. Billed as a mixtape, Wesley’s Convertible Tape From the South follows 2021’s stunning pair, Sunday Music for an Overpass and If the Ceiling Were a Kite, Vol. 1, adding to April Magazine’s stack of lapping, hypnic dream-pop that uses the four-track they record on to shade in the textures of their warm, humid sound. Music for windy beaches, overcast summer skies and sticky salt on sunburnt skin. If you like Midwife but want to feel wistfully nostalgic instead of existentially broken, check this. Cassette comes with a neat zine of smudgy, black-and-white images that look like how this sounds.

Sun Organ - Candlelight Showertime

Every scene has one. A band who’ve been doing the defining sound for as long, and as good, as the community’s posterchildren, but just haven’t gotten their due for it. When it comes to “Philly shit” shoegaze of the last decade, Sun Organ are that band. Featuring ex-Spirit of the Beehive members, their new and best LP, Candlelight Showertime, fine-tunes the slumping, dour indie-rock that bands like SOTB and Gunk were fucking with before Alex G blew up. There’s a little bit of the G-man’s glum country on “Hours Waiting For You,” but the folkier elements of Sun Organ’s past are paved over with prickly nods (“High In the Shower, Pt. 1” and “In My Bed”) and sludgy staggers (“God Loves His Little Things, Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2”) that make their sound more dynamic and powerful. This is an awesome level-up.

Greg Mendez - Greg Mendez

It’s fine. I love Trick-era Alex G probably more than the next guy. This sounds like Trick-era Alex G without any of the sudden crescendos, creaky guitar licks or playful vocals — the stuff that made him more than just an Elliot Smith devotee. I like voyeuristic glimpses into poverty and drug addiction as much as the next middle class guy who’s never struggled like that. Those stories are here, but it’s hard to fall into them when the overly plain, squint-and-you-might-hear-a-tune music is making my eyelids so heavy. A song like the drowsy, frustratingly quiet “Maria” doesn’t come close to translating the drama of jumping out of a crack den to evade the cops. The lyrics on this album are so viscerally honest. The characters so real. The settings so tactile. But the stark acoustic strums, vacuum-sealed production and restrained mumbles don’t make those wounds more unguarded for the listener’s viewing. Rather, the stripped-back approach just flattens the drama and comes off bafflingly uninspired. Mendez is great at writing stories. On this album, he’s painfully drab at telling them.