Surreal pop trio craft eeriest, most rewarding work yet on third LP.
It’d be left of center to categorize the Casket Girls as “dream pop". Sure, they have that subgenre’s trademark dense textures enveloping evanescent melodies, but their craft is even more cryptic, pushing the dreamlike form to its arcane zenith. “Surreal pop” is a more apt description for the Savannah trio, and on their third LP, they own this distinction with particular confidence.
The Night Machines, by and large, doesn’t expand much on the Casket Girls’ modus operandi. Then again, their niche doesn’t lend itself to development so much as refinement. They know their strengths and cultivate them, rather than veering off into risky territory. As established on their two prior albums, their tapestry consists of glitchy, electronic organ, rickety drums, Optigan-sounding synth bleeps, and drifting gossamer vocals. Permeating Ryan Graveface’s tableau, sisters Phaedra and Elsa Greene offer numerous quotable couplets with an existential bent. Their sweetly deadpan delivery is by turns eerie and comforting as they offer insights on modern malaise, grapple with mortality, and reference occult elements such as clairvoyance, reincarnation, shapeshifting, and divination.
Filtering hooks through a spooky atmosphere is the group’s foundation. The 11 songs here emerge like fog rolling over a mossy cemetery, a dilapidated mansion looming in the background. Lead track “24 Hours” name-checks Monet and Rimbaud as artists the Greene sisters aspire to channel and opens the portal to the album’s nocturnal realm. The following tunes crackle and hiss as if there’s grit in the record’s grooves, making the document sound like an anachronistic artifact recovered from a dusty trunk. That it’s negligible whether the work hails from a bygone era or one that is yet to come adds to its otherworldliness. Of course, this is endemic to the Casket Girls, as they’re about myth-making that extends beyond their music. Call it gimmicky, but creating a spectral image of themselves is symbiotic with fashioning off-kilter pop ditties.
On the down side, this reliance on their established approach leaves The Night Machines prey to the same pitfalls that befell Casket Girls’ previous records. While to a degree demanded by their aesthetic, the uniformity of their sound digs them into a hole. Listener fatigue is a natural result, as halfway through the record, the absence of deviations makes it difficult to stay focused and the songs end up bleeding together.
Again, that’s not to say the band simply reiterates what they’ve done before. As said above, the group hones its style, even if they don’t reinvent it. The track standing out most is second number “Tears of a Clown”. It’s heavier than anything they’ve recorded. Its gothic, throbbing bassline is ominous enough to evoke a heart tremor. An industrial lurch and roiling guitar culminate in a feedback squall. Conceptually defiant with social commentary more overt than anything else in their oeuvre, the Greenes chant-sing “America bleeds the tears of a clown / Seeing stars behind bars”. In the catchy chorus, they level their ire at the greed-based war machine, which isn’t the most novel of criticisms, but it works with the singers’ oracle-like distance.
Lyrically, there is an unprecedented earnestness and world-weariness belying the sisters’ youth. A melancholy air has always saturated their work, but it feels less affected or speculative and more informed by experience. The sisters are winsome even at their most optimistic, as themes of unattainability, dashed dreams, and squandered hopes recur. Still, the Greenes address these issues with a dispassionate candor rather than bemoaning them. “Beyond a Shadow” puts it most succinctly, as they intone above trip-hop beats and twinkling synth notes, “I know that life betrays you / In the blink of an eye / And I know that life is laughing / In the face of asking why." It’s a mission statement for the album. Later, as shuffling percussion rises, they offer a nihilistic consolation in “Enjoy the comfort of knowing everybody dies."
Elsewhere, “Sixteen Forever” laments the frailty of youth, the depressive albeit obvious observation being that “Only the dead / Stay sixteen forever." It’s a blunt disavowal of romanticism, while still laden with the trepidation of aging. On the comparatively upbeat “Virginia Beach”, the titular location is treated as a fabled Shangri-La that seems a pipe dream getaway. The same is true with “Mermaid Cottage”, the sisters singing like tempting sirens to lure others to a watery den not in a threatening way, but to help them attain some solace or reprieve from the world above. On the closing title track, Graveface’s dusky tones are at their subtlest and most expansive. The music unfurls like a cinematic score as the sisters repeatedly whisper “we are the night machines”. A flicker of electricity and rumbling bass are joined by a simple piano melody to usher out the album on a somber note.
While The Night Machines is unlikely to alter Casket Girls’ (oc)cult band status, it’s certainly the album that delivers on the promise foretold on prior releases. It continues their upward trajectory and rewards fans for their devotion.