Heba, the debut album from Lowly, arrives described as “noise pop”, a compound that can take many different forms involving some combination of sonic pleasure and anxiety. Forms like Dan Friel’s Life (2015), coarse ear candy that cannot be wrung from the mind once heard. Kiiara’s “Gold,” from the same year, with its chorus that makes all of life feel chopped and screwed. More recentexemplars edit pure pop source material to create new works of uneasiness. Dan Deacon is an expert of both modes, having produced a masterpiece of original noise-pop composition (Spiderman of the Rings (2007)) and torn up one of the biggest pop singles in recent memory (“Call Me Maybe Acapella 147 Times Exponentially Layered”).
So where does Lowly’s Heba fit into this ever-shifting brand of “noise pop”? Nowhere, really, and that’s a good thing. Heba is a studio album; a studied album; a Scandinavian album. To seasoned ears, the voices of Heba are the latest dot for a line traced from ABBA to 4AD to Bjork to Nina Persson to Goldfrapp and early Knife. The music and production are what “trip-hop” might have become were the genre not so overdone in a previous generation. So the vocals, melodies, and beats of Heba are not groundbreaking. But the group is skilled at assembling these pieces and communicating some fresh ideas about the shape of pop to come.
The first track “Still Life” is one of the album’s only missteps. Initially, there’s an interesting set of contrasts, with a droning open that could be Stars of the Lid were it not so fast, followed by a drum beat designed to sound lagging even as it keeps the time. But as new components layer on, the song quickly reaches a point where too many incompatible things happen at once. The lead vocal is pleasant, but there’s little time to enjoy it because of another operatic voice and some sort of text-to-speech or otherwise automated spoken word competing for the listener’s attention.
“Deer Eyes” would have been an even more effective choice for the album’s introduction. Leaner and more compelling than “Still Life,” it’s a more confidently executed song and an obvious single. Rather than stack several elements on top of one another simultaneously, “Deer Eyes” showcases the band exploring different modes in succession—a characteristic the band’s bio/press kit refers to as “shape-shifting”. One group Lowly cites as a common interest for all members is Radiohead, whose influence is evident in “Deer Eyes”. Here the drums/percussion reference “Videotape,” which is one of Radiohead’s most beguilingly shape-shifting compositions.
An outstanding attribute of Heba is the use of turning points that add dimensions to songs, often in such an immediate or subtle fashion that the listener has no time to register the transition, just to enjoy the surprise of newness or harmony. As the chorus of “Mornings” asks “so how have you been?” new “tones of inquiry” (to paraphrase Joni Mitchell) appear or become suddenly apparent. This is all consistent with the band’s capability for transmutation.
“Prepare the Lake,” which is in the middle of the album, is the track that most thoroughly invites comparisons to individual rock/pop songs of the recent past. In specific ways, this song is to Lowly what “Coalman” was to the Delgados and “10 Mile Stereo” was to Beach House. “Prepare the Lake” does not produce quite as dramatic an effect as those songs, but those are two of the great pop numbers of the last fifteen years. That Lowly would play in the same ballpark on its debut album is a feat.
More evidence of Lowly’s attention to variety is the inclusion of calmer tracks to break up those propelled by heavy and/or up-tempo percussion. In addition to serving this function for the album’s sequencing, “Cait 2” and “Pommerate” and “Not So Great After All” feature differing musical contexts and production textures that also contribute to the vocal variety. For example, “Pommerate” sounds like Shelley Short, which cannot be said of the seven songs before it.
After each detour, the album returns to big beats, and from a rhythmic perspective, the most impressive song on the album is “Word,” an observational song that holds the drums back for about a minute, after which they come in to dominate the rest of the track. There’s a knowing interplay within this composition, between its percussion and compression and the repeated lyric “can’t get a word in”. And that’s how most of Heba operates, as a complex construct that through skill and magic sounds effortlessly sweet.