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Post-Punk Trio Moaning Release Lean, Kinetic Debut

Photo: Michael Schmelling (Sub Pop Records)

Moaning masterfully employs dichotomies to craft a record that grows more rewarding with each spin.


Sub Pop

2 March 2018

The eponymous debut album from Los Angeles trio Moaning is a far richer affair than one might assume. A glance at the ten songs' terse titles — "Tired", "Useless", "Artificial", "Misheard" — and you could assume this a down-tempo, sluggish affair, the band barely putting up a fight against its doldrums. Then, on initial listen, you might dismiss it as post-punk-by-numbers, the music occupying a grey dreariness common of the subgenre. On the contrary, though, the record flays and riles as a largely upbeat affair, at least in terms of rhythms and pulses. Its greatest strength, in fact, is how Moaning masterfully employs dichotomies to craft a record that grows more rewarding with each spin.

For instance, the band contrasts frontman Sean Solomon's often aloof delivery with furiously roiling instrumentation. Angular, cutting guitars and rubbery bass lines are offset with euphonious synth parts. Pummeling drums are tempered by immediate hooks. Themes of grappling with existential nausea and coming of age in our anxiety-eliciting modern times are countered by flitting melodies that allow the whole thing to go down easy. An indebtedness to the '80s underground is clear, while the album manages to feel strikingly contemporary. There's plenty of grit between the record's clenched and chipped teeth, but its components are so deftly juxtaposed as to prevent its dourness from being an oppressive chore to get through.

Opener "Don't Go" hits like a firing squad's salvo. Drummer Andrew MacKelvie and bassist Pascal Stevenson sound as if they're racing their instruments as Solomon offers a deadpan vocal obscured by a layer of fuzz, his flat emotional affect belying the lyrical weight of resisting abandonment. Jittery and urgent, the song stands as a mission statement of sorts, charging to the end in less than three minutes, though you're left feeling it was even shorter. It vies for the distinction of the record's strongest number (competing with "Artificial") and is one of the best singles of this young year. From there, no song passes the four-minute mark, making the whole album leaner, tighter, and more kinetic (as well as more palatable and less abrasive) than some of those steeped in the subgenre.

After the table-setting punchiness of "Don't Go", second track "Tired" allows for some breathing room. Arising spaciously from the murk, the mid-tempo tune is dominated by gleaming synths and borders on dream pop. Solomon's vocals drift with a narcotic-like haze, conveying the sentiment of resignation. To avoid feeling lethargic, though, the piece is punctuated by searing synths, some quirky fretwork, and percussive clamor. "Artificial", then, returns a more energetic drive with the rhythm of paranoid eyes darting from side to side. Come the refrain, a wall of synths and MacKelvie's thrashing drums support Solomon's uncharacteristic cathartic howls. Lyrically, the song finds Moaning at their most self-referential.

The bulk of the record's second-person point-of-view narratives veer toward juvenilia, while it's often ambiguous if the target of Solomon's finger-pointing judgment is another person or himself. With "Artificial", though, Solomon casts a mocking eye to the woe-is-me mindset in such lines as "feel bad for me" and "nothing is fair". Elsewhere, the lyrical focus on mundane, early adulthood observations becomes redundant, but such direct derision works here. That said, the song's best moments are its instrumental interludes. Throughout the record, the band tends to buck against structures and put their instruments at war with one another, though this typically results in compelling interplay rather than noise. That is at its finest display between verses in "Artificial".

Later, the distortion storm of "Does This Work for You" is defined by abruptly switching time signatures, though it still feels unified rather than discordant. "The Same", arriving at the middle point, is built upon Stevenson's most sinuously throbbing bass. It coils and unfurls with the menace of a snake, Solomon's narrator above it dryly waging an internal tug-of-war between what he is, or once was, and what he's becoming. "For Now" approaches outright pop, featuring shuffling percussion, distant synth blasts, and brief instrumental breaks that flirt with going unhinged.

Penultimate "Misheard" zeroes in for the closest thing the record has to a ballad. For the first third, it's built around a delicate guitar part and restrained drums. The chaos doesn't stay bridled, of course, as a maelstrom swells up periodically only to fade back behind Solomon's words. Closer "Somewhere in There", then, brings things full circle with an unrelentingly heavy onslaught that conjures images of a building collapsing in an earthquake. "Is it you/ Somewhere in there?" Solomon asks-accuses in the chorus before the cacophony cuts off and fades back into the ether.

Though it is steeped in a subgenre that often can seem tapped out, Moaning is a strikingly accomplished debut. Considering what novel injections they were able to do on this document, it's tantalizing to envision where they can proceed on subsequent releases. As such, the record occupies that coveted spot of being satisfying on its own, while teasing the listener with the promise of what's to come.


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