It’s easy to understand why youth rebel against the suburbs. The very idea of suburbia is to remove those who can afford to be removed from the bustle of the city to sleepy bedroom communities with even sidewalks, fresh asphalt, and strip mall after strip mall of the same bland ethnic foods. For teenagers who long for the energy of urban life, nothing exciting happens in the suburbs. It’s the place where dreams go to settle. But there is an allure to the suburbs, too, a rhythm of life that is seductively slow and predictable. Streets are smooth and wide. Parking is never a problem. It’s comforting to never hear your neighbors argue, to not have to change apartments every 18-24 months because the super raised the rent (again!).
Rebecca and Ryan Coseboom, the main components of Stripmall Architecture, live in the Bay Area, not San Francisco, a fact which permeates their persona. “It’s like we lead a double life,” Ryan says. They both hail from, and still live in, the California suburbs, where their PTA-involved neighbors might not believe that the nice married couple next door fronts a rock band on the side. It is this cross-section of comfort and frustration which Stripmall Architecture’s music explores with syrupy pop-electric programming and old analog equipment. The songs across Suburban Reverb echo the ennui but also the seductive sway of the suburbs, where property taxes and the state of your plumeria are the biggest concerns of the day.
Musically, Suburban Reverb is a mix of dream pop and dark wave, a minor-key record heavy on bass and synth. Ryan is an audio engineer by day, and his expertise is obvious. Suburban Reverb is at once tense and flowing, sensuous and malevolent. Each track is like an episode of Weeds, exposing hints of the underbelly of the middle-class American Dream. Over it all, Rebecca’s sweet, breathy vocals seem almost anachronistic. The disconnect between the moody, lush music and Rebecca’s siren voice is interesting at times and jarring at others, creating a tension between the suburban and urban. There is a sense that something is brewing there, that at any second the band could go crazy and move into an efficiency in the Mission or sell their gear and enroll in a cooking class.
Rebecca sings of the city lovingly, the “damp grey fog of San Francisco” that “wraps its arms around me like a lover” on “Heartbreak/Rhinebeck”, but she also gives in to the urge to save and plan like a good suburbanite, “living for the future, just in case in there is one,” on “Commuter”, a track which the band has described as “the most honest thing that we’ve done just because it kind of describes our lives.” These are the highlights of the album, the moments where the band breaks ranks with their Williamsburg contemporaries who sneer at the very thought of not living within walking distance of a vegan bistro, who would never wear sweat pants outside the house, even if it was just to the store. What Stripmall Architecture does incredibly well is explore that dichotomy. What they don’t do is branch out much from that exploration, leading to an album that feels thin at times.
In the city-dwelling psyche, cities represent vibrancy while suburbs represent staleness, but in the suburban mind, the suburbs are a safe haven, a community of like-minded and like-walleted individuals who can nestle together like puppies in a litter, blissfully unaware of any possible harm. There is something to be said for living at the center of everything, but Rebecca and Ryan know well the benefits of the other path, the seduction of endless sunny days and homogeneous middle-performing schools. They address their own restlessness and dismiss it just as quickly on “We Are Not Cool” with a simple sentiment: “If you wanted your freedom, you would take it.”