Elvis Depressedly’s New Alhambra is a dark horse contender for the best album of the year. It’s a record full of lush, sedate, synth-heavy pop music that weaves in samples of televangelists and professional wrestlers, each side essentially functioning as its own extended, multi-part song. The songs conflate worship and entertainment,fire and brimstone and hell in a cell, a choir in a cathedral and entrance music over a tinny PA. It’s an engrossing listen, by turns tranquil, terrifying, heart-rending and inspiring.
The specter of Chris Benoit — the pro wrestler who, suffering from brain damage brought on by repeated chair hits directly to the head, killed his wife, son, and himself — hangs over the album. The lyrics seem concerned with the point where ring violence becomes real violence, where biblical wrath becomes personal tragedy (Benoit placed Bibles next to the bodies of his wife and son).
Opener “Thou Shall Not Murder” alludes to biblical commandments against violence, but it sounds resigned, disappointed, knowing that the command has been broken and will be again and again. The rest of the album seems to be an attempt to come to terms with that knowledge. The next song, “N.M.S.S.,” declares that “I love everyone that I have ever known”; juxtaposed with the resignation of “Thou Shall Not Murder,” it sounds less like a promise and more like a condition, a challenge: how can we reconcile our need to love with the terrible things that the people we love are so often responsible for?
New Alhambra is poised to be a potential breakout moment for a loosely defined scene that’s been bubbling around the edges of indie music for the past decade. It could loosely be termed “bedroom pop,” and it consists of artists who record in small, intimate settings, mainly distributing and finding collaborators online rather than being beholden to any regional scene.
It can be seen in labels such as Brooklyn’s Orchid Tapes, whose artists are geographically spread out but sonically have a clear influence on each other, often collaborating on each others’ records. The sleeve of label compilation Boring Ecstasy states that “Orchid Tapes has turned into a tight-knit group of people that we’re happy to call our family, despite the geography that restricts us from being able to see each other as often as we’d like to,” which summarizes well the rapport that these artists seem to share.
This is a group of artists, some of whom might know each other, play shows together, collaborate, or release on the same labels, and some of whom might not. They operate in different genres, different types of sound, with music that aims to achieve different things. On the next page you’ll find a haphazard list of essential releases from these artists — Orchid Tapes is the most unifying factor here, as all of these artists have had releases on that label, but not everything featured is those specific releases. The qualities they share are somewhat intangible, more emotional than sonic, and can be more easily felt than described: if any of these releases intrigue you, the rest may well do so too.
Various Artists – Boring Ecstasy: The Bedroom Pop of Orchid Tapes
Emblematic of Orchid Tapes’ dedication to intimacy, not only in sound but down even to packaging, copies of label compilation Boring Ecstasy shipped with a handwritten thank you note from label head Warren Hildebrand, a teabag stamped with the Orchid Tapes logo, and a sleeve sprayed with a custom scent developed specifically for the release. Orchid releases feel not so much like collectors’ items as personal keepsakes, something that feels made distinctly for you. From the musky scent through the orange glow of the candlelit cover photograph to, of course, the music itself, Boring Ecstasy maybe best embodies the warmth that emanates from this must, an intangible, vaguely melancholy quality that evokes cozy bedrooms and long hugs. It might be the best introduction to the label, featuring all of the better-known names from its extended family: it includes contributions from twisted pop genius Alex G, the fractured dance-pop of Ricky Eat Acid, and the swooning, ambient pop of Hildebrand’s own Foxes in Fiction project. Maybe the best cut, though, is Yohuna’s “Badges,” an achingly beautiful synthpop ballad with the refrain “I’m not pretty, I’m not nice/I am radiating light.” It isn’t phrased as an afterthought or a contradiction, but as two directly related statements: that ugliness and meanness, real or perceived, are precisely what makes the song’s protagonist radiant. Ultimately, this music is about nothing if not loving yourself, and everyone else, despite, or even because of, your flaws.
Infinity Crush – Sometimes Even In My Dreams I Am
Infinity Crush is the solo project of Maryland’s Caroline White. Driven by simple, affecting melodies, usually played out on acoustic guitar or casio, her songs often deal with conflicting, complicated dimensions of emotion. “Whisper” plays like it’s going to deal with a failing relationship, opening with the line “What’s on your mind when you don’t look in my eyes?,” but it continues in a more languid, contented direction, exploring not a progression of events but the litany of emotions all happening at once. It moves quickly to sex, emotional warmth, and coming to terms with the self. Lines like “I can miss you when you’re two rooms away” could be either close declarations of love or distant pining, and the song perfectly illustrates how both are permutations of the same feeling under different circumstances, collapsing the love song and the breakup song, contentedness and sadness, into one continuous entity. The EP as a whole deals with conflicting emotions manifesting themselves as one: “Poison Ivy” sounds both sexually bored and engaged, and “Whatever,” with its refrain of “I’m sixteen forever and life is so whatever,” acknowledges how juvenile angsty feelings can seem, while still recognizing them as legitimate.
Elvis Depressedly – Holo Pleasures
Elvis Depressedly’s most celebrated release prior to New Alhambra, Holo Pleasures is a warm, comforting listen, full of synth sounds that cover you like warm blankets and basslines that drip like honey. It’s Xanax in musical form; you can apply it to anxiety or doubt or anger or any negative emotions like a salve. It sounds cozy, sedate, accepting; it’s an embrace of an album. Every line is suffused with care, understanding, and acceptance: “if there’s a cool spot in hell, I hope you get it” is one of the most effective expressions of love in the face of self-doubt imaginable. It has the purest love songs of any Elvis Depressedly release, and acts as a handy rebuttal to the “sad” tag that sometimes gets affixed to them.
Alex G – Trick
Alex G is a young songwriter from Pennsylvania whose songs are weird, corrupted, beautiful little things, describing small elements of life from a perspective that falls somewhere between childish, drug-addled, and emotionally overcome. It’s a state in which you can fully recognize emotion but not engage with it fully, gimlet-eyed and dissociated. The songs are often simple in structure, but Alex G punctures them with small idiosyncracies: a distorted vocal effect, a dissonant guitar chord, a solo that sounds like it falls a couple beats out of place. They’re immediately likeable, with memorable lines and sticky choruses, but also designed to discomfort and unsettle.
DSU is his most recent record and the first to see a wider physical release, but the recently reissued Trick does a slightly better job balancing his pop inclinations and willingness to unsettle. There’s a loosely continuous theme of loners and outcasts, people who invent fictions or skewed realities in order to compensate for their inability to engage with the world on its own terms. “Animals” details someone’s preference for animals over humans, focusing on a sweet, loving, but almost uncomfortably close relationship with a dog. “Mary” envisions a crush as an inhuman monster with “big red eyes” and “big sharp teeth,” a personification of the fear and anxiety that burgeoning sexual desire can translate itself as; “Kute” conflates the same feelings with violence and religious worship. At the same time, some of these songs feature Alex’s strongest pop songwriting— the chorus to “Forever” is practically top 40-worthy. Of all of these artists, Alex G’s growing fanbase is the most cultlike — only natural for a songwriter this singularly, idiosyncratically gifted.
R.L. Kelly – Life’s a Bummer
Rachel Levy expresses emotions differently than most. Some particularly emotional music can feel like a therapy session, a diary entry, or a diatribe. Levy’s is more along the lines of listening to a friend vent over a couple beers. Lines like “Wish I could give a fuck but I’m too broken” feel like those moments when a conversation unexpectedly dips into the more serious, only to be immediately undercut (in this case, by the refrain of “life is a bummer)”. Her songs feel like being resigned to sadness without exactly succumbing to it — sometimes a sigh can be more cathartic than a scream.
The lead track, “You’re Not the Only Monster from Hell,” starts with a simple guitar figure and sparse Casio drumbeat, which, at the chorus, are swallowed up by a wash of beautifully distorted synth. It’s one of those sounds that really thrives in this specific type of pop, cheap keyboard sounds that gain an enveloping, overwhelming quality. “Familiar Haunt” is the most heart-on-sleeve track here, laying out simple but profound emotions in devastatingly plain language: “I can’t understand why I am who I am/ Or why I don’t do everything that I can/ To make myself better.”
Coma Cinema – Posthumous Release
Coma Cinema is the solo project of Elvis Depressedly’s Mat Cothran. He’s described the main difference between the two projects as Elvis Depressedly dealing in other people’s experiences and Coma Cinema his own; indeed, his work under that name often comes off as intensely personal, or at least less all-encompassing. The songs on Posthumous Release take time to get to know — they’re not immediately recognizable as “difficult” like some thornier or more experimental strains of music might be, but they absolutely improve with familiarity. After a few listens you start to notice more cracks and crevices and the whole thing starts to wear in like leather. Once you get to know those songs, they reveal themselves more; they sound fuller, more present. At the same time, raucous pop compositions like “She Keeps It Alive” and “Satan Made A Mansion” make the whole album engaging through those first few nervous listens. Cothran has four albums under the name so far; all are excellent, each better than the last, but Posthumous Release is something special. Apart from New Alhambra, it’s the best work he’s been a part of.
Foxes in Fiction – Ontario Gothic
Foxes In Fiction is Orchid Tapes head Warren Hildebrand; his music is dreamy, ambient pop, and it’s gorgeous. His voice, high and fragile, glides over lush, elegantly composed soundscapes. Pop hooks abound, but rather than being foregrounded, they blend into the swooning backgrounds to create a completely engrossing, romantic mixture. The title track sounds like a prom song from an alternate, floral-printed dimension. “Shadow’s Song” floats like a whisper over beating-heart drums. The album is exhilaratingly beautiful throughout. It’s music to fall in love to.
Ricky Eat Acid – Three Love Songs
It’s easy to describe much of the Orchid Tapes family’s music as “ambient,” but Ricky Eat Acid, aka Sam Ray (of the defunct Julia Brown and sorta-active Teen Suicide), is one of the only artists to make more-or-less straightforward ambient electronic music, pieces that often seem to focus on soundscape more so than rhythm (although his more recent, footwork-inspired tracks are a notable exception). Three Love Songs starts with these quiet, droning, drumless compositions as evocative and setting-specific as their sentence-case titles: “Driving alone past roadwork at night,” “In rural Virginia, watching glowing lights crawl from the dark corners of the room.” In the latter, the tinny sound of a preacher shouting hellfire is gradually swallowed by sounds of a car door, a purring motor, and a building, stuttering synth that cuts in and out as if it’s unsure whether or not it wants to be heard. “In my dreams we’re almost touching,” the most straightforwardly danceable song here, combines multiple Drake samples over propulsive handclaps and a looping synth line. Elsewhere, when there is percussion, it skips and stutters, not so much providing a rhythm as building upon the fading, warbling atmosphere of the tracks.
Jacob W. Moore is a Boston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.