John Schmersal and Christian Beaulieu may seem like odd musical companions, considering Schmersal’s habit of twisting pop and rock sensibilities in Enon and, especially, the excellent Brainiac. Meanwhile, Beaulieu has played in muscled epic rock groups like Triclops! and Anywhere. But the two find connection in defying expectation, in working not just on the sound but the visceral nature of music, the feel of it. Hence their band name, Vertical Scratchers, a name picked to identify the sound of slashing guitars, of the pick plucking hard on the string.
And their first album, Daughter of Everything, is nothing if not twisting and restless. But it’s also perfectly built, endlessly catchy, and full of irrepressible energy. It’s fitting that the band recorded this album at the Smell, a Los Angeles music venue and punk-noise institution, because the album is raucous and yet intimate. Schmersal set up mics right next to the strings as he recorded his guitar parts, so not only do we hear the sounds coming out of the amps but also the dry immediate snap of when the pick meets the strings. This should make the record lean, even brittle, and it does to an extend, but this duo is too varied in its talents, too exploratory to use this effect to get to just one sound.
In fact, the album drifts all over the pop and rock map. The songs rarely clock in over two minutes, so they leave their mark and get out of the way. “Wait No Longer” starts with driving drums and bass, before Schmersal’s blurred sweet voice cuts against the edge of the song, until of course the guitars come in and double-down on the song’s energy. It leads into the kook-pop sway of “Turn Me Out”, which feels like a more playful left-field turn away from the rocking opener. But it also makes sense when “Memory Shards”, a song full of sweet hooks and Schmersal’s rangy high-register, marries oddball pop sensibilities with a razor’s edge rock power. You could spend a lot of time rattling off great rock songs on this 15-track album, but it’s perhaps more instructive to see where the formula shifts drastically. Take “Pretend You Are Free”. At 3:43, it’s far and away the fastest song, one that stretches out with thumping bass and spare percussion while Schmersal pulls on his phrases, backing them up with the kind of vocal harmonies Brian Wilson would tear up to hear. It dials down the energy, for sure, but it still rises and falls in unexpected ways, keyboards plinking away but also building into something bright but textured.
The song highlights the melodic side of the record, but it also makes you stop and appreciate the band’s impressive talents, really take them in while they’re not busy speeding by you. This also paves the way for the mid-tempo, stop-and-start brilliant of “Chambermaids”, where those tightrope guitars take on a dreamy haze. “U Dug Us All” lets the guitars go back to their dry pluck, but they deliver a moodier atmosphere, echoing out into blackness under layered vocals. Later “Run Around” uses the same elements, with heavier drums, and it feels exponentially bigger, an arena-rock gem unafraid to blindside us with hairpin shifts. “Rainbows”, with its finger-picked acoustic, should be the biggest outlier here, but instead it plays like the tracer left behind by these speeding songs. It’s slow, it sounds like its faintly fading away, but it maintains the pulled-on melodies, the careful vocals, the snapping guitar.
And so, on one level, John Schmersal reminds us of the percussive nature of guitar, and his work here feels very much like a guitar that could be part of a rhythm section. But this is not just about the percussion of his guitar. It’s also about the somehow melodic way Beaulieu approaches the drums here. His fills don’t accent or give foundation for the guitar so much as it plays along, echoes it, even adds to it. Beaulieu can certainly propel these songs forward, but he’s also contributing to the hooks at every turn. In this way, Schmersal and Beaulieu question and twist the way we expect band instruments interact. They aren’t one on top of the other here but rather side by side, each one contributing equally to rhythm and melody. Nowhere is this better displayed than on “Get Along Like U”, a song that features fellow Daytonian Robert Pollard. The song is the catchiest, and also the wordiest, song here. Schmersal is strumming at a blistering pace, but each time he shifts his strumming, Beaulieu’s drums shift too. They push the song ahead, giving Pollard his fastest tune to sing through in years, but they also shift the melody and challenge him to keep up. That he does, that he fits every word in here, is impressive.
But Pollard’s excellent contribution doesn’t find him hi-jacking the record. Instead, his song highlights the strength and inventiveness of Vertical Scratchers. There are other bands that shift around dynamics between elements—the way the National uses drums seems like a good example—but few do it with the pure pop knack and punk zeal this band does on Daughter of Everything. It’s a perfect rock record because it throws the order and interaction of elements in rock records into doubt, but in studying a tradition it never forgets the power of that tradition. These songs don’t care for repeating choruses, for keeping us around. They build their perfect moments, then they stitch them to a new one. It’s an endless track of excellent moments that make a shape-shifting, dynamic whole. One that keeps our attention even as it stays in motion, and in that way it is both immediate and timeless. An excellent top-to-bottom record.
// Notes from the Road
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