Slothrust / Tancred / Mal Blum And The Blums at Union Transfer
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With their long-awaited third album Everyone Else, Slothrust deliver ten riveting anthems that reward repeated listens. The songs grab the ear and pierce the psyche with complex arrangements and lyrical depth intensified by guitarist/vocalist Leah Wellbaum’s penetrating vocal delivery.
Slothrust is Wellbaum, Kyle Bann (bass), and Will Gorin (drums). The trio first staked out their unique strain of jazz- and blues-afflicted rock as students at Sarah Lawrence College. The band’s 2012 debut Feels Your Pain, and its successor 2014’s Of Course You Do, established the band as a breed apart, serving up deceptively clever epics that veer satisfyingly between incandescent riffing and pop hooks, winsome anxiety and powerful heft.
“People have always had trouble comparing us to other bands, but someone recently described us as Nirvana meets Wynton Marsalis, and I loved that,” says Wellbaum. Even the band’s name inspires a beat of thoughtful consideration as the eyes take in the letters and the brain makes its snap judgement: Slo Thrust? Slot Rust? Slo Trust? Sloth-Rust.
We all studied jazz and blues, so I often use chords and voicings that aren’t quite as conventional for contemporary rock,” she continues. “Certain harmonic movement can get stale, so I try to incorporate colorful notes to give it more depth. The improvisational spirit of blues music is also something we try to always keep with us, even in more composed playing. I am drawn to musicians a bit further outside of the rock tradition, such as John Fahey, Elizabeth Cotten, D’Angelo, and Portishead. Growing up I listened to a lot of R&B and classical music. And musicals.”
While Everyone Else clearly shows Wellbaum fulfilling her early promise as a singer, it’s where she hits her stride as a lyricist: Pulling the listener under the surface to explore a submerged world brimming with exotic creatures. Water motifs abound, detailing oddly off-kilter observations about floating, submerging and drowning that are anything but morose. Instead, they contort and reflect worldly truths about life on dry land.
Nowhere is this vision clearer than on the slow burn of the album’s centerpiece track “Horseshoe Crab.” Here, with storm cloud riffs and Will Gorin and Kyle Bann’s perfectly calibrated rhythmic undercurrent, Slothrust’s erupts in a geyser of emotional and spatial distance, as Wellbaum observes, “I don’t have anything in common with myself, except that I came from the sea, like everyone else did.”
“Like a Child Hiding Behind Your Tombstone” opens like some bizzarro world lullaby dispensing sage advice: “Drink seltzer, smoke weed when you can’t sleep. Think about shooting birds, everyone has got a violent streak.” Then, as the guitars explode, the rhythm section dials into stylish, disciplined groove to set up an expansive instrumental break that gently floats to a close with Wellbaum, at peace: “Hold me under the water. My lungs are filling with plankton. But the lake is not lonely. No need for you to come with me.”
Above all the overriding ethos of Everyone Else is its sense of inclusiveness: all people, every feeling, quiet, loud, any time signature. With a snap of the neck the band launches into the hyper-adrenalized “Rotten Pumpkin” with Wellbaum singing in a rapid-fire vomit burst, “I’ll make you sick because I’m soft water. Reach inside of me, and scoop out my seeds.” This midpoint between grunge and art rock is the aesthetic Slothrust elevates: sharp-eyed individualism, serious musicianship, humble intelligence, controlled abandon.
Though technically the band’s third full-length, Out of the Garden is Tancred’s first truly cohesive record: a mission statement that underscores the “power” in power-pop and is punctuated by lyrics as razor-sharp as the hooks.
Written over a two-year period during a break from touring, the album’s emphasis on re-defining feminine expectations was shaped by primary songwriter Jess Abbott’s experiences living in Minneapolis and working at a liquor store in a rough part of town.
“I learned how to speak up when I needed to and how to truly be myself without reservation,” Abbott recalls. “I felt afraid walking home at night, and after a couple of months I just got sick of it and started getting into self-defense and self-empowerment as a means of coping. Finding my own strength changed everything.”
After writing and tracking every song in her apartment, Abbott (also of beloved Minneapolis trio Now, Now) enlisted Kevin Medina and Terrence Vitali to add drums and bass to her demos. The band then traveled to LA to record with OFF! bassist Steven McDonald and That Dog vocalist/guitarist Anna Waronker.
Both producers proved to be the perfect collaborators, with each elevating the final takes via their specific areas of expertise — Waronker helped Abbott achieve the raw vocal attitude exhibited on songs like the seething “Hang Me,” while McDonald orchestrated the tailor-made guitar tones and trashy drum sounds highlighted on standouts like “Joey.”
As a result, Out of the Garden showcases Tancred shedding its former skin in favor of a bolder and infinitely more confident sound.
Opener “Bed Case” bolts off the starting block with a guitar salvo straight from the ‘90s before “The Glow” ups the amperage with crunching riffs and pummeling distortion. Soon after, smooth as silk “Sell My Head” serves up a chorus so intrinsically catchy you’ll already be singing along the second time around.
As Abbott reveals, “I wanted these songs to sound sickly sweet, with a looming, gory shadow behind them. Sugary, but when listening closely, unsettling.”
This juxtaposition is presented flawlessly during the chorus of “Pens” when Abbott sings “I’m insanely healthy in my head / It’s crazy how stable I am” amidst a background refrain of “oohs” and “aahs.” While your head reflexively bobs along to the melody, your brain is compelled to decode the ominous double meanings embedded in her cleverly chosen adjectives.
Her fearlessness to discuss these and other personal topics is referenced in the album’s title, an allusion to exiting Eden and leaving behind all the restrictive cultural norms ingrained in the Biblical “paradise”: tradition, purity, holiness, binary gender, heterosexuality, and the idea that anything is forbidden (especially for women).
Says Abbott, “Out of the Garden represents doing what you want, what you need, without letting anything or anyone stop you — and smiling while you do it.”
Mal Blum And The Blums
Mal Blum is an American songwriter and performer from New York who has released four full length albums. The most recent, “Tempest In A Teacup,” released in May 2013, is a collection of nine songs.
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