I remember seeing Sass for the first time, lead vocalist and guitarist Stephanie Jo Murck bounding up the stage strapped with a sparkling guitar and donning rose-colored sunglasses. It was a set with a powerful sort of vibrancy that doesn’t really allow you to forget it. And Sass’s first full length record, Chew Toy, is much of the same…Vivid and relentless. Chew Toy comes in reckonings, with the titular song being the gritted teeth finally opening into a gaping maw. “He was my favorite guy/ I liked him all the time/ He was my favorite boy/ I was his chew toy” Murck sings, reconciling the form of love you may still carry for someone who violated you. Chew Toy has a resounding resilience to it; Murck delving into her own experience with sexual assault as a child, creating a catharsis in listening. The buoyancy of Chew Toy isn’t so much surprising as it is heartening. Sass maintains a subversively cheery sound, reflected in track titles like “See Saw” and “Nice Things.” Though its title sounds positive, “Role Model” captures that moment of realizing that other people expect adulthood out of you when, in reality, getting stick ‘n pokes is your greatest coping mechanism. It’s one of the many peaks on Chew Toy in which we feel literal growing pains. Murck listlessly singing “filling myself with empty calories, what even is an empty calorie?” as Joey Hays’ manic drumming punctuates her sentences. The song reaches a combustive peak before devolving into chaos with Murck’s voice rolling into a squeak. The worry that, if people really knew who you were, they wouldn’t love you underscores this album. On “Gut Feeling,” Murck admits “I still feel ashamed, yeah who knows how to heal. The ways I taught myself to hide instead of deal” before the frenetic guitar and screeching amp give way to her wails. Chew Toy peers over that wall desperately wondering “what’s next?” It occupies that point in life in which we are ambling around without a map just trying to do the right thing. This doesn’t mean that Chew Toy is devoid of joy, there’s a playfulness to it that seeps in on songs like “Minutes” where Murcks bouncily taunts “When you’re desperate and horny come on and whore me” and the band chants “horny” in harmony before the track’s sudden end. On “Freshwater Pearls” Murck spreads her Pisces energy and claims water as her greatest healer (a common theme throughout the album). There’s a sweetness hovering right above the debut that keeps it all from collapsing in on itself. Chew Toy is steered by the steady bass line of Alex Mcormick, not to be tipped by the staggering, wayward guitar of Willem Vander Ark. It’s all wonderfully lopsided, with Murck’s elastic voice expanding and shrinking like the musical equivalent of a rubber band snapped against the wrist. Her malleability is part of what makes Chew Toy such an addictive listen. Murck can be stretched thin, clenched tight, or totally snap— and it’s that volatility that propels this defiant debut. At times the guitars of Murck and Vander Ark become indistinguishable from Hay’s drumming, all merging into a fever break. From the moment Murck screams “I want to do everything” on the opening track, you can feel the frustration to the vivacious energy. The vulnerability displayed on Chew Toy isn’t so much spilling your guts as it is flipping your stomach inside out. This debut is tremendous and tender and ragged, it’s a mouth holding you gently on its tongue until you’re decidedly let loose. Chew Toy is not so easily discarded as the title suggests.
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Niiice. walks into our place of meeting, a 24hr vegan restaurant owned by ex-punks, grinning and scraggly. Which is not out of character for their sound: emo with a kick of power. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hesitant of sitting down with a three piece band comprised of all white dudes, but the more we talk the more they grow on me. And obviously, I’ve already listened to their forthcoming EP Never Better, out today, March 1st on Brave Cove Records, which has given me high expectations. Never Better actually jumps off 2018 LP, Try to Stay Positive. Whereas “try to stay positive” sounds like measly advice, “never better” sounds like the sarcastic retort to “how are you?” The titles work as a musical “two steps forward, one step back”. Never Better is more concise and collaborative than previous releases, which is ironic considering that it’s hinged around instability. The catalyst being the ass-kicking summer of 2018 where singer and guitarist Roddie Gadeberg and drummer Sage Livergood shared an apartment with rats and mold. Which is probably why there’s a certain need for comfort on this EP. But as Gadeberg tells me about his love for the first two Slipknot albums, Livergood tells me he’s been listening to Lil Peep lately, and bassist Abe Anderson sits quietly, I see the full picture of Niiice. come into focus. Their lovable burnout trope is self aware, not a hint of irony on them.
Never Better opens with the more pop-influenced track, “Snowbored,” which gleefully delves into Midwestern loneliness and the season of snow that interconnects our sadness. On it, Gadeberg mutters “the weather’s fucked, life fuckin’ sucks/but what’s new with you?” Niiice. takes themselves lightly and their music seriously, leaving the emotions to fall somewhere in between, coming in waves of goofy twists on a more classic emo sound. On ‘Love Handlez’ a chipper cartoon voice chimes in “wait, let’s always be stupid. Forever!”, giving us the idea that Niiice is in on the joke: another band crammed with longing, broke, and coming up with track titles in their free time. But Niiice. is reflective, with Never Better being a product of spending a lot of time with yourself- for better or for worse. On the jangly ‘Blunt Force Marijuana’ Gadeberg bemoans “it’s like my father told me, I’ve got no direction/I hate the way I look like him when I’m staring at the mirror.” But the pitfalls of trying to be more doesn’t stop the EP from having a good time: It’s persistent with dynamic riffs. Livergood tells me “we don’t just play emo,” meaning that there’s more to Niiice. than scraping vocals and hating your hometown. The most aching part of Never Better is that the “you” that Gadeberg sings about isn’t some woman-shaped space in his life. “You” is rarely even a person. It’s nostalgia. It refers to a better state of mind, a better time and place. When things were just a bit easier. Never Better doesn’t point to past romantic relationships, but contentious family ones, typically with father figures (Gadeberg calls Emo Boy breakup songs “misogynistic” and “annoying”). Don’t conflate Niiice.’s stoner jokes with their ability to feel deeply. Niiice. is fluent in puns and memes, but isolation undercuts the melodic humor with the shiftlessness that comes from being lonely even when you’re not alone. The cover art for Never Better features a gap-toothed kid smudged with a sinking black eye, giving you a thumbs up. At one point Roddie adds that sometimes he feels like the kid on the cover. Or maybe the cover art feels like him. A kid still standing with a goofy smile after a smack. When it comes down to it, maybe Never Better can best be surmised as a trampled on thumb still pointed upwards.
Never Better is out now on Brave Cove Records. Niiice. will be touring March 8th-17th with a release show at the Garage in Burnsville, MN on March 17th.
Today we have an exclusive sneak peek of Chromagnus’ brand new EP Feed The Pile, ahead of the project’s wide release tomorrow, March 1st.
Feed The Pile marks the Austin band’s first release as a four piece, with guitarist Max Prudhomme and bassist John “Hutch” Hutchinson joining founding members Will Grover and Ronnie Sokol. The tracking for the latest EP was done live to 1/2" tape in the band’s living room over the course of a week in early 2018, with band member John Hutchinson stepping into the producer role. The band says this recording process gave them full creative control, adding “We wanted the limitations and ‘vibe’ of analog recording to accurately convey the energy of the music, and we learned a lot in the process.”