Album Review: Tomberlin – “At Weddings”

Posted: by The Editor

There are several records that fit seamlessly into the category of background music–they’re wonderful for long car drives, mellow enough for work study, and easy enough on the ears to play softly over speakers at a coffee shop. It’s almost as if these records were curated specifically to live a life of low-volume bumbling alongside light moments between others. On first listen, one might be quick to place Tomberlin’s debut LP into this grouping, but they’d be wrong. Sarah Beth Tomberlin proves that her music is more than a set of acoustic, lo-fi bedroom tunes. With the entrancing At Weddings, one will be wiped of that mindset halfway through the opening track.

Blossoming from Louisiana, Sarah Beth Tomberlin, who performs under her last name, acts as the little sister of Jess Williams and distant cousin of Julie Byrne. Where Williams is grit and bite, Tomberlin is refined and gentle. Where Byrnes’ vocals are shadowy and dim, Tomberlin is poignant yet bright. The distinct quality of her voice and presence on studio recording gives way to At Weddings being an album that is so much more than just sobbing over being scared and alone in the aftermath of a soured relationship. It’s a statement.

Unlike most album formulas, Tomberlin wastes no time pulling the pulp from her project. Beginning with the opening track, “Any Other Way”, it instantly entices the listener and prepares them for the content that envelopes the rest of the record. Her monotonous vocals, which are pertinent to At Weddings success, singing the crestfallen, “tired of feeling like you only stay out of guilt and out of shame” is quintessential as the opening act to the blues of searching for faith and losing sight of love.

“Untitled 1” and “Untitled 2,” following the first song and preceding the last, are similar in layout as they act as short scribbles of poetry set to clouded musicality. They’re important to the journey the record takes the audience on, acting as interludes that fade into further emotions. The turning point of the record is heard through “Video Games”, a track that tumbles Tomberlin down a more jaded path that is less about the romanticizing of her fallen lover and more about the bitterness that sits inside her chest and head the longer the relationship is dormant.

“I’m Not Scared” is easily At Weddings most poignant and memorable moment. Being the lone track predominantly driven by the keys of a piano, Tomberlin showcases the haunting aura her voice can grapple as she smoothly caresses the track with lyrics worn of her despise of church (“spent so much time looking that I forgot to search”) and the fatigue of being a woman. Proving to be one of the best, if not the best, lyrical passes of the record is her untroubled tone as she sings, “to be a woman is to be in pain/and my body reminds me almost every day that I was made for another, but I don’t wanna know that/‘Cause it happened once, and I always look back.” Tomberlin is heard vocalizing the unhappiness love seems to bring to everyone she knows as the track eases into the ever-bruised “Seventeen.”

Not unlike the two songs prior, “Seventeen” is drenched in misty vocals and grey clouds. The difference is the almost serene and breeze-like quality that is underneath Tomberlin’s sharp melodies. “Self-Help” follows with minimal lyrics but just as much of a profound punch. She doesn’t shy away from more graphic imagery with the first words spoken being, “Electrocuted in the bathtub/yellow, black, my bruises become/the heart is a heavy coffin where I lay down everyone I love.” This track is reminiscent of 90’s alt-bedroom-rock with its heavy use of reverb. The stuttering climax of noise culminating between bridges can represent the static heard in a chaotic mind, warped with clutter and misdirection that contrasts the soft and melancholic vocal.

As the last two songs come and go, the memories of love get more jaded, the definition becoming darker. “February” ends with a less than savory feeling, something the listener won’t be able to shake off quickly. It’s not the happy ending we’ve been programmed to receive but the realistic ending that we don’t want to face in our own relationship woes.

Tomberlin is the musical embodiment of the cocktail party effect. Surrounded by chatter and noisy party-goers, the general listener doesn’t allow At Weddings to bleed into the background with the rest of the noise. Tomberlin is the voice and the presence one vies for. She is the voice that makes one filter out all other sounds to focus on. She exudes enough distinction to tune into all while tuning everything else out. To have that much musical sway in a record with low levels of production is an absolute feat.

At Weddings is out now via Saddle Creek.

Disappointing / Average / Good / Great / Phenomenal

Hope Ankney | @hope_ankleknee

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