Due to label hassles, Joy Zippers’s second album, American Whip, was only available as a pricey import for the better part of a year. It finally lands stateside, dragging with it a lyrical heart as dark as the music surrounding it is bright. Vincent Cafiso and Tabitha Tindale have crafted a shimmering set of songs, which draw as much on the harmonies of the Beach Boys and the lush keyboard orchestrations of Air and Mellow, as they do on the carefully plotted lines of Luna or the swirling guitar fuzz of My Bloody Valentine (Kevin Shields mixes four of the songs and produces one). Their breathy vocals ride on layers of blessed-out sun-washed melodies—but don’t stare too long: you may just have your eyes burned out. Joy Zipper has refined itself stylistically on American Whip moving past Joy Zipper, an album whose sound was heavily chained to its influences. This is an album of conflicted tunes that constantly tease the listener with pure pop melodies subverted by a gallows humor.
On first listen, American Whip is a soundtrack to a day at the beach. Tindale and Cafiso may split time between New York and London but the music they make is infused with the kind of sunshiny vibration that made the Beach Boys so goddamned happy. You can almost feel the two of them standing on white sand, hand in hand, faces turned up to the sun, their daughter cavorting amongst the dunes. On the surface the songs are so openly wistful, so full of “yeah, yeah” asides, and declarations of love and desire, that’s its easy to sink back into the mix like it’s a vinyl beanbag chair of interlaced harmonies, subtle keyboard hums and washes, and thick bass. These songs just feel good. They hit the inner ear like MDMA hits your brain, leaving you all snuggly and full of smiles. But American Whip has secrets just below the surface, and they’re not pretty.
On the opening track, “Christmas Song”, Joy Zipper melds a slithery keyboard track with a pulsing bass and a naughty little guitar chord progression that will spread smiles every time the track is played. Initially you’ll find yourself singing along to the quaint refrain, “I need you more than the rain in springtime / Love you more than the open sea / Feel you most when I’m deep in madness”. Hold it. Now what was that last part? Then you begin to realize that this isn’t a love song as much as a song of obsession. Lines such as “You should know I’m always watching”, start to lose their romanticism and gain a sinister bent. It’s a song about losing control when what defines you is lost. The repeated refrain—“I need you again and again”—loses its innocence when coupled with “You’re doing things in a different way / I feel you now ‘cause I’m deep in madness”.
“Baby You Should Know” is about as rocking as Joy Zipper gets. It’s a simple, catchy tune that pushes a fuzzed-out guitar to front of the mix. It clearly owes a debt to My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, who mixed the track. It’s a song of obsession: “Baby you should know this time / That every thought is mine / And this feeling I know so well / You know it too and that’s okay”. It encapsulates the essential give and take of the whole album.
“Out Of The Sun” moves on a lean guitar line that Luna’s Dean Wareham would be proud to call his own. Cafiso and Tindale’s vocal interplay is at its best here, playing call and response on the chorus, chasing each other through a B movie’s love scene montage, smiling into each others eyes but holding scissors behind their backs: “Then it came to me the other day / It was so unreal so mannequin / And they’re right: the body’s just a shell / If you stare hard enough you’ll notice”.
A quartet of violins add a lush texture to “33x”, filling in any holes left by Cafiso’s moog line. Tinsdale takes the vocal lead. No matter how brightly-strung is her lovely voice, the song’s refrain—“I’m getting tired of this life”—can’t be completely buried by the music’s uplifting tone.
On other songs Joy Zipper explores loss of control through drugs (“Drugs”, “Dosed and Became Invisible”) and dementia (“Alzheimers”), always archly paring their beautiful compositions, embracing a mix that emphasizes guitar as much as the orchestrated keyboard of their last album. Theirs is a lyrical disposition that is odd at best and disturbing at worst. It’s this delicious dichotomy that powers much of American Whip, easily answering any questions that may have surrounded their delayed sophomore effort.