ICYMI: The Obsessives, Shelf Life, Real Life Buildings
Posted: by The Editor
On their self-titled Lame-O Records debut, the young Philly duo scrap the run of the mill emo of their previous work and rebrand themselves as one of the most enlivening bands in indie rock. Nick Bairatchnyi’s vocals still have that nasally emo inflection, but he takes a more lackadaisical approach here that’s better suited for the crunchy, bassed-out riffs and earworm hooks that’re veiled in slacker-rock modesty. The precise transitions, attention to dynamics and pacing (the numerous sub-two minute cuts on here either provide breathing room between upbeat bangers, or a quick crush of distortion to tide you over until the next swell), and inconspicuous synth lines/effects all indicate The Obsessives put a lot of thought into this record—but they sound like they’re not even trying. Not in the sense that these tracks sound lazy or rushed, but that they’re so instantaneous despite not feeling forced or over-the-top.
Obviously, jangly hits like “Surfer Rosa” and “If You Really Love Me,” as well as the slightly edgier yet equally infectious “You’re My God” and “It’s Okay If,” are easy to fall for. However, it’s the crushing breakdown of “Now She’s Smoking,” the rhythmic changeup in the heavenly “He Is Wise,” and the minimalist “When One Thing Ends” that truly showcase the band’s versatility. This isn’t just a record full of sing-along-ready indie/emo-pop, there are legitimate portions dedicated to instrumental prowess that prove these guys know how to write a record—not just a collection of songs.
Although “It’s Not Fair” buddies up a little too closely with something off the new Modern Baseball record, the other 13 songs on The Obsessives each have something genuinely memorable and vital to them—whether it be a devilishly catchy hook, a savory riff, or a gratifying bridge. Despite Sorority Noise, Remo Drive, Charly Bliss, Modern Baseball and The Hotelier gaining acceptance and praise by the current indie community, for whatever reason people seem to be sleeping on The Obsessives. That’s a poor choice, as this continues to be one of the best and most repeat-worthy rock records of the year.
Now that Car Seat Headrest, Frankie Cosmos and (Sandy) Alex G have slowed down their notoriously prolific outputs a la their rise to indie fame, Shelf Life might be the next Bandcamp boomer to pay attention to. Under that moniker, Scotty Leitch (the former touring drummer for Alex G) put out two albums last year alone and is already back with another, Christian Coated Ethical Arena, which is his best yet. (UPDATE: Since writing this review, Shelf Life has already released another full-length, Bark).
The Philly-based multi-instrumentalist is another product of a 21st century bedroom, playing and recording everything himself, save for a few guest appearances from various Philly musicians, and then tossing it up on Bandcamp. 2016’s Alright, Okayyy and Spirit Bear were pleasantly hazy assortments of lo-fi indie tunes that, although enjoyable, followed the blueprints of his contemporaries a little too closely. However, on Christian¸ Leitch has come into his own as a songwriter and sounds more confident, capable and creative than ever.
Opener “I’m Sil-ly” is constructed like a Perfect From Now On-era Built to Spill song, sprinkling vocal harmonies and a distortion-coated guitar solo atop the winding acoustic riff. The very next track begins with echoey reverb that a pronounced bassline and jangly picking emerge from, recalling the patience and perfectionism of a Prawn or The World is a Beautiful Place & I am no Longer Afraid to Die track; a sound that Shelf Life’s never before touched yet replicates beautifully. The record continues in this unpredictable manner; the electro-based “Titri” is practically a trip-hop track (its elastic rhythm is hilariously similar to the bassline in Kendrick Lamar’s “XXX”), “Ginger Tea” features eerie dual vocals by Leitch and Abby Trunfio, and the slow-burning “Susan” crawls along via numerous manipulated vocal tracks and haunting synth passages.
Shelf Life’s still playing with the bass-driven, minor key indie rock of his previous work on here (“North Korea” and “Bill Blasphemy” would’ve fit fine on Spirit Bear), but the loads of experimentation with different styles, ramped up production (the hissy, muddy aesthetic of Alright, Okayyy isn’t missed) and effort toward unconventional, through-composed song structures make this his most dynamic and interesting work yet. Christian Coated Ethical Arena is still the product of one mind in one room, but it sounds like the fruits of a band’s worth of musical personalities.
Significant Weather, the second full-length from Brooklyn’s Real Life Buildings is full of lyrics that read like unfiltered thoughts and self-critiques. It’s as if songwriter Matthew Van Asselt threw his day-to-day inner dialogues onto the page without editing them—in the sense that they’re raw, unconcerned with poeticism, and don’t feel as though Van Asselt was second-guessing himself. They come across as casual yet honest late-night conversations with himself, as he frequently picks at his flaws and either comes to terms with them or anxiously realizes their origins. It’s an inward record, and the art lies within his bravery to turn himself outward for its 34-minute runtime.
“For the last year I’ve felt like if I could just find the right place/If I could just get the right stuff and have the right routine/I wouldn’t have to worry about ever feeling down/But I forgot to account for the fact that happiness isn’t a permanent state/It’s a fleeting sensation, just temporary elation something you experience for a little while,” he sings in opener “Cold.” However, not all of his lines are quite as epiphanic. In “Black Kettle” he plainly describes a dream of his, in “Ground Cover” he observes the fragility and temporariness of fresh snowfall (a metaphor for happiness, perhaps) and he injects some millennial dry humor into “Other Windows” with the standout line, “If it wasn’t for Instagram I probably never would have known/That the sun ever came up today.”
Musically, these tracks possess the rambling nature of the lyrics they’re supporting. They alternate between fuzzy, bass-heavy chords, licks and keyboard lines reminiscent of the latest LVL Up record, and the hushed strumming of a Florist or Told Slant album. The band (which contains Laetitia Tamko of Vagabon on guitars and Elaiza Santos of Crying on keys) don’t concern themselves with solid choruses and verses; instead creating these amorphous passages that swerve between one another, often seeming as if they’re building into something and then just ending once Van Asselt’s said what he has to say. Because his songs are so lyrically driven, there aren’t many moments where his speak-singy vocals aren’t present. Therefore, the album’s main issue is its sheer wordiness, which begins to wear on you during its tail end. Regardless, Significant Weather is a gorgeously honest collection of musings from a self-aware twenty-something played through a warm, organic indie rock lens.
Eli Enis | @eli_enis