Pity Sex: One of Ann Arbor’s Finest (Former) Indie Bands

 

Pity Sex is a really great band name. It brings to mind the image of a grimy hardcore punk band known for their moshpits and blistering sound. That is not the kind of band Pity Sex was. Sure, their music is full of noise, but it’s far too sweet and melodic to be considered anything close to hardcore, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While they weren’t the most influential or captivating band in the scene, they put out some good stuff in the five short years they were active.

Pity Sex formed in 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as part of a local emo revival birthed out of Sigma Phi, also known as Metal Frat. Their core lineup of Sean St. Charles on drums, Brandan Pierce on bass, and Britty Drake and Brennan Greaves sharing guitar and vocal duties remained consistent until Drake left the band in 2016. After a split cassette with fellow Ann Arbor band Brave Bird, the band released their 2013 debut EP, Dark World. In brief, it’s a short, solid set of songs that mainly dabble in indie rock and shoegaze, though it’s tinged with 90s alt rock and emo sensibilities, at their most cloying sounding a bit like Pinkerton-era Weezer. The band hadn’t really honed their sound at this early point in their career, which made them sound a bit one-dimensional, but there’s something to be said about how well they portray adolescent angst and desire in the dreamy walls of sound and dramatic vocal tradeoffs between Greaves and Drake. Their most well-known song, “Dogwalk”, also came from this EP, and it makes sense why it had such popularity. It’s got a loose, infectious vibe characterized by a slinky guitar line that transforms into brittle noise on the chorus, as well as a catchy vocal melody and an admirably amateur-ish performance. The high-energy instrumental bridge is a nice, unexpected moment, too.

In the same year, they released their debut album, Feast of Love on notable indie label Run For Cover Records. This record saw them operating in much of the same sounds as their EP, with some notable improvements. Opening song “Wind-Up” doesn’t reinvent the shoegaze wheel, but it’s some of the band’s best songwriting, most noticeable in the earworm hook and inventive guitar and bass interplay. “Sedated” and “Honey Pot” are similarly bold and infectious (and actually transition into each other quite nicely!), though the real highlight comes in the mid-album moment of respite “Hollow Body”. The band strips things back to just gentle guitar arpeggios and Drake’s dreamy vocals, and it’s such a refreshing change of pace. It’s simple, elegant, and absolutely mesmerizing. I would have loved to hear them explore this lighter sound more in their time as a band.

Following the release of their debut, Pity Sex toured with some pretty impressive acts in the scene, including Basement, Tigers Jaw, and Code Orange side project Adventures. Following this, they released what would be their final album before going on an indefinite hiatus, White Hot Moon. As with their other releases, it’s an enjoyable, bright record with several highlights (the title track is especially great in its heaviness), but suffers from much of the same problems as well. They had certainly mastered the lo-fi, hazy shoegaze/dream pop sound reminiscent of classic acts like My Bloody Valentine, but throughout their career, they failed to innovate and move past their influences into their own distinct sound. It’s a shame their career was so short-lived; I think it would have been interesting to see how they may have evolved with future releases, especially as they became more established musicians, though I admire their DIY, fledgling spirit. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for music by some Ann Arbor natives, or just some solid music to throw on in the background at a party (or makeout session, if you’re feeling romantic), Pity Sex is a great choice. Let’s hope they reunite for some shows when those are a thing again.

 

Sidenote: I also think all their album artwork is beautiful!

 

Pity Sex Dark World.png

 

 

Dark World EP  (2013)

Songs to check out: “When You’re Around”, “Dogwalk”

 

 

 

 

 

Feast of Love  (2013)

Songs to check out: “Wind-Up”, “Hollow Body”, “Sedated”, “Honey Pot”

 

 

 

 

 

White Hot Moon  (2016)

Songs to check out: “What Might Soothe You?”, “Plum”, “Nothing Rips Through Me”, “White Hot Moon”

 

 

Looking Forward: BlueNote Vocal Jazz Ensemble

Happy Friday, everyone!

It’s another sunny day here in Ann Arbor. I don’t know about you, but that automatically boosts my mood – plus it’s practically the weekend already!

This week I had the opportunity to chat with Cinderella Ksebati, Co-Founder and Music Director of BlueNote Vocal Jazz Ensemble. As another fairly new organization on campus, I was excited to learn more about how they have adapted this year and what their upcoming plans for performances were like. Let’s dive right in!

Founded in 2019, BlueNote Vocal Jazz Ensemble aimed to help fill the void of limited opportunities for students to participate in vocal jazz on campus. The group consists of both undergraduate and graduate students, including a mix of SMTD and other schools. They were able to perform on campus at the SMTD’s “Collage” event, as well as a few off-campus opportunities before campus shut down in early 2020 due to COVID-19. This hasn’t stopped Cinderella and her team, though. They are still working just as hard to “revitalize the attending-a-jazz-concert experience and in 2020-2021”.

“We are thinking, okay, how do we present this using technology, using what we have at our disposal, and continuing to make art, create jazz music, and start to get people engaged with this genre. And bring it back to the forefront of the arts as is such an American tradition, we want to bring it back and take bits and pieces of those traditions honoring and paying homage to all the vocal jazz greats. Of the groups like, for example, Take Six, New York Voices, so some of our program for the upcoming project that we’re working on, “Let’s Go to the Movies”, encompasses a couple of those things. We are mixing the media, we’re doing a 30-minute jazz film and we’re using all vocal jazz repertoire.”

To prepare for that project, BlueNote has been meeting via Zoom 2-3 times a week and using an online audio workstation that allows them to hear a little bit of the “blend” that vocal groups work so hard to achieve in performances. They have also incorporated a few individual, in-person rehearsals, following county and university guidelines. 

Though Cinderella does miss in-person performances, she notes that there have been some interesting developments in vocal jazz, at least in BlueNote, that she hopes will continue after COVID. Specifically, adding more storytelling into their performances is something she has really enjoyed. 

“It won’t necessarily be a film next year, who knows, but I certainly think that that is going to be changing some things and just in terms of our passions of the group members.”

Check out their most recent YouTube video above, performing “Walkin My Baby Back Home”.

BlueNote’s newest project, a short jazz film titled “Let’s Go to the Movies”, will premiere in April. You can stay up to date on their upcoming events by following their Instagram and subscribing to their YouTube channel. Lastly, keep in mind that the group holds auditions every semester, so definitely keep an eye out this Fall if you’re interested in singing!

That’s all from me this week! 

 

Stay safe,

Lucy

TikTok Songwriting Trends

Yes, I know. TikTok is in my blog post title. How very Gen Z of me. However, I think there is something to be said about a trend I’ve been following on the app for the last few months. It’s been super cool to watch, and has taken off quickly in the TikTok community.

The first time I saw a TikTok of someone playing original music, I didn’t think all that much of it. Sure, it was cool, but people post original music on SoundCloud, Youtube, Instagram, etc. I didn’t see how TikTok could do anything more for creators than these other platforms. I think it’s safe to say now that I was wrong.

Since I joined the app in September, I have witnessed songwriters years younger than I am blow up for posting just 15-60 seconds of a song.

I remember scrolling through my For You Page and coming across a video of a blonde girl singing an original song into a microphone. It was a simple video. The lyrics started “I’m mad at Disney, Disney / They tricked me, tricked me / Had me wishing on a shooting star”

Chances are, if you have ever spent time on TikTok, you are familiar with those words. The song blew up big time, and now serves as the audio for over three MILLION videos.

“How can you miss someone you’ve never met / Cuz I need you now but I don’t know you yet” (IDK You Yet Alexander 23)

“Low key f*** 2020” (F2020 Avenue Beat)

“Don’t stay away for too long / don’t go to bed / I make a cup of coffee for your head” (Death Bed Powfu)

“Now I could write 10 songs about 9 ways you ****ed me over” (Never the 1 ROSIE)

“I would rather be distant with you / than feel distant with someone who / is standing in front of me” (Long Distance JORDY)

“Cuz I never meant to fall out of love with you” (Out of Love With You Avery Lynch)

I’m betting you’ve heard at least one of these lyrics before. Each and every one of these songs was written, posted, and born from the TikTok platform. This just goes to show that the world of music is changing RIGHT NOW. The artist ROSIE, for example, posted “Never the 1” on TikTok after her boyfriend broke up with her less than a year ago, dropped out of school a few weeks later, signed with a major record label, and is now recording music for a living. Social media has such power in all aspects of life–and songwriting is no different!

Other notable examples of TikTok music include Ratatouille the Musical–a full musical written/created by TikTok users, Bridgerton the Musical–a musical in progress being written and scored by @abigailbarlowww and @mlebear, song-a-day challenges like the one being undertaken by Vaultboy, and many more super cool projects. If you’re already a TikToker, I recommend checking all of these people out! If you’re not, I still recommend giving at least some of their content a listen! TikTok can be a time-sucking addictive mess, but there is definitely good to come out of the platform.

 

Laying Down the Sound: Colored Balloon – Episode 2

Hello again everyone! In this week’s video I focus again on my song “Colored Balloon”; this is the second episode of the “Colored Balloon” series. More specifically, I go over the song’s organization and lyrics. The structuring of the song and the inspiration for the lyrics are here in focus. At the end of this video, I feature a full acoustic performance of “Colored Balloon,” which is meant to serve as a checkpoint along the way; it signals the completion of the songwriting process and the beginning of the recording process. Accordingly, then, my focus in the next video will focus on the latter. I did not intend for this video to be so long, but it is. Hopefully you enjoy and can take away something worthwhile from this video!

Album Review: Little Oblivions – Julien Baker

Little Oblivions

Matador (2021)

Julien Baker has always been somewhat of a paradox. She’s an openly queer woman who also happens to be Christian and from the South, specifically Tennessee. She writes simple, beautiful songs about complex topics like human nature and addiction. It seems to work for her, though, which is especially true on this new record, her third following two well-received albums and an EP with former tourmates Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers as the indie supergroup boygenius. I found her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle and 2017 follow-up Turn Out the Lights to be enjoyably raw, devastating listens, but I always wanted her to expand her sound from the simple guitar-and-vocals approach she’s known for.

Little Oblivions serves as a full reinvention of Baker’s sound; it’s still her own, but presented in a much bolder, expansive package. This is largely due to Baker’s talents as a multi-instrumentalist: in addition to producing it, she plays nearly every instrument on the album, including guitar, bass, drums, piano, mandolin, banjo, and more. Simply put, it sounds massive, as if all the emotions contained in her lyrics have finally found an equivalent in the music itself. This evolution is immediately clear on the opener, “Hardline”, which, frankly, is one of the best songs she’s ever written. I’d even say it’s an early contender for song of the year. The song opens with harsh, blaring organ chords, an unexpected move that works incredibly well. Like much of Baker’s work, the song is an emotional powerhouse, but this one truly feels like it, using atmosphere and dynamics in a way her other tracks just didn’t explore. The drums are hard-hitting, the synths and guitars are bittersweet and heavy, and Baker’s vocals are better than ever. The lyrics are even more devastating than usual; one line I keep coming back to for its bluntness is when she asks, “Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?”. It’s as good of an intro one could ask for.

From this point on, the album is consistently dense and troubled. It sticks fairly closely to the lush indie rock sound presented on the aforementioned opener, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because for Baker, it’s all pretty new territory. Early album highlight “Relative Fiction” is about as groovy as a Julien Baker song could sound, all tight drums and light melodies, though it still holds onto her trademark introspection and self-deprecation in the lyrics. A bit later, Bridgers and Dacus lend their vocals to “Favor”, though it doesn’t exactly sound like a boygenius song. It’s actually a hazy, intoxicating ballad depicting the inherent drama and self-disparagement that comes when admitting guilt: If I didn’t have a mean bone in my body, I’d find some other way to cause you pain / I won’t bother telling you I’m sorry for something that I’m gonna do again”. Other personal favorites include the driving lead single “Faith Healer”, as well as sparse piano ballad “Song in E”, which provides a much-needed moment of calm on the album.

However, as much as I like it, I don’t think this album is without its flaws. The main issue I have with it is I find the mix to be a bit smothering at times in its densely layered style. I think the record would benefit from giving all the different sounds some space and thus allowing it to have a vast, open sound. That isn’t to say I think it sounds bad or is poorly produced; it’s a gorgeous listening experience, albeit a bit disorienting. On a similar note, I would have liked there to be a greater focus on balance in terms of song intensity. There aren’t many songs that allow the listener to just breathe for a second, which perhaps is intentional given the emotional content of the record. When listening to the album in preparation for this review, I found myself repeatedly coming back to those little moments of simplicity on the album: the acoustic arpeggios in the midsection of “Highlight Reel”, the buildup of muted guitar and hushed vocals on “Heatwave”, all of “Song in E”. While I think Baker can definitely pull off the full-band sound, I admittedly miss the intimate nature of her earlier work. The bigger sound can take away from the raw power and beauty of her vocals and writing, though it is clear from the lyrics that she is no less vulnerable in her music.

All in all, Little Oblivions is a great record from a great artist. It’s a huge artistic leap, and although I’d argue she hasn’t completely mastered the larger sound, I believe it’s definitely something she can and will master on future releases. The writing is better on some songs than others, but it’s incredibly solid as a whole. It has a cohesive, enveloping sound throughout, like a night spent lying in bed, dissociating in the dark. Her ability to write such vulnerable, ruminative lyrics is a testament not only to her musicianship, but her devotion to near-constant self-examination and betterment as well. I honestly could have written a whole other post on her lyrics, and perhaps I will in the future. Most importantly, while I still love the uneasy nature of her previous work, she sounds confident as ever on this album, which I cannot help but admire. Everything here, from the lyrics to the melodies to the instrumental presentation, cements Julien Baker’s status as one of the most honest, brilliant songwriters out there today. It’s truly life-affirming stuff, and I highly recommend it.

~~~

Side note: I’ll be posting a chart of the albums I’ve been listening to at the end of each month on here. Here’s what I listened to in February! What have you been listening to?

 

Art Biz with Liz: Pride and Prejudice Soundtrack

While my “Wellness Wednesday” this past week focused more on schoolwork than wellness, there are certain things that I treated myself to during the day off. One such activity was listening to music from the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. If you aren’t familiar with Pride and Prejudice, the film is based off of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel of the same name, which features five sisters from an English family (namely Elizabeth Bennett) as they navigate issues of marriage and morality. Instead of the storyline, however, today I’ll be talking about the movie’s soundtrack.

There are a variety of reasons as to why I love the Pride & Prejudice (Music from the Motion Picture) soundtrack. For one, I have fond memories of it. When I was in high school, I learned how to play two songs featured in the movie: “Leaving Netherfield” and “Liz on Top of the World.” I should clarify that by “play,” I mean play on the piano, and by “learned,” I had to master (or at least, become proficient in) the songs for an end-of-the-year piano recital. I didn’t mind, however, due to how pretty the songs were. “Liz on Top of the World” has a special place in my heart, not just because of the name, but for how beautiful it is. In my opinion, both of these tracks, along with basically every song in this soundtrack, are to be treasured – and you don’t need to have a personal connection to the soundtrack to enjoy them.

Movie soundtracks can do wonders in enhancing a movie scene or storyline. The Pride and Prejudice soundtrack has many moments where it does just that. It excels in its use of subtle songs in the periphery of crucial scenes, but it also drops the music front and center, making it as important as the dialogue or even the plot itself. “Meryton Townhall” and “Another Dance,” for instance, help transport viewers into the late eighteenth century during ball scenes. The soundtrack enhances the film by going hand-in-hand with its tone and story, intensifying pivotal scenes and providing insight on character growth. “Liz on Top of the World,” for example, begins while a silhouette of the sky is shown through Elizabeth’s closed eyelids, setting a mood. The music crescendos and manifests into an image of Elizabeth standing on a cliff, culminating into a breathtakingly beautiful and powerful scene.

See the source image
The Film’s Theatrical Release Poster

Outside of the film, the soundtrack gives me all the emotions I feel while watching the movie. It’s also worthy enough to be art on its own accord, and if you haven’t caught on by now, I highly recommend that you give it a listen. Don’t believe me? Composer Dario Marianelli received an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score and two World Soundtrack Academy nominations. Clearly, I’m not the only one who believes that the soundtrack deserves praise.