"How do I find confidence in myself and belief in my own voice, now that there's no pretense to it being a totally shared project and it's totally centered on me as a songwriter?"
A cassette clicks into place. Static follows. A pause, then, a surge: evaporating shimmers of neon guitar cascade though open air and, just like the cassette that preceded them, they suddenly click into a pocket that was waiting to be filled, but, in this case, the pocket isn't a stereo, it's a thundering tripartite boom of percussion that leaps over the track's bottom like a stone skipped over an endless ocean.
This is the beginning of "Nunca", the breakthrough track from Trails and Ways' lauded 2013 EP Trilingual. A perfect showcase for the band's self-proclaimed "bossa nova dream pop" sound, a head-in-the-clouds paean for dissolving sociocultural divisions through the sheer force of desire, it deservedly put the quartet of Keith Brower Brown, Emma Oppen, Ian Quirk, and Hannah Van Loon on the map. As it comes to a close, you realize that the song is, in fact, a circle: a click can be heard again, the cassette stops playing, and it seems that you've circumscribed some immense globe of feeling -- a world of graffiti-streaked walls, labyrinthine cities, and lacerated language barriers -- to arrive back where you started. The power of globalization and cross-cultural affection, it suggests, can be conveyed through a song inscribed on audiotape.
This isn't the Trails and Ways we hear on Own It, though, the Berkeley-hailing collective's third LP and first effort without Oppen and Van Loon on board. Here, with only Brower Brown and Quirk remaining, we hear a pair of songwriters in a new place with new convictions. Speaking with PopMatters, Brower Brown was open about the tectonic effect that his bandmates' departure had on him. "It put me in a place of feeling broken down personally," he said, his voice cresting over each syllable with the precision of an academic, the thoughtfulness of a daydreamer. "It felt like the vision I had for the band as this collective project that could rise through the bullshit of the music industry based on the utopian power of our collaboration had been stripped bare."
In the wake of this vision's collapse, Brower Brown was left with a question, one that fomented the concept that runs through Own It's bloodstream. That question: "How do I find confidence in myself and belief in my own voice, now that there's no pretense to it being a totally shared project and it's totally centered on me as a songwriter?"
To find the answer, Brower Brown and Quirk both turned to the musicians whose courage, bravado, dynamism, and untrammeled rawness initially pushed them toward rock as a mode of expression. "What was inspiring for us was going back to the roots of the music that first got us committed to playing back in high school. For me, that was a lot of post-punk stuff as well as a lot of the Northwest lo-fi scene," Brower Brown said. "For Ian, that was a lot of punk stuff." '70s art-punk standard-bearers Wire can be detected in these songs, as can Black Francis and Pixies' predilection for stark verse-chorus contrasts and direct poeticism.
More often than not, though, it's not punk's anarchic, high-speed, thrash-the-soul-awake sound that defines Own It. Rather, it's punk's underlying philosophy: the belief that a few guitars, drums, and throat-searing vocals could undermine the hyper-capitalistic commercialism and staid inauthenticity that was not only afflicting the music industry in the mid '70s, but society itself, the very way that people interacted, desired, developed, and thought.
"My Things", perhaps more than any other track on the record, embodies this philosophy. On paper, its thesis condemning American materialism and over-commodification teeters toward stiltedness; it could be a neoliberal paper topic in a freshman sociology class, or a passing analysis pawned off as wisdom. Yet, heard in the form of a song, it's a polished, slyly affecting micro-polemic that uses the rules of pop against themselves. "I don't wanna / wanna / wanna live without my things", Brower Brown sings, his voice spinning a half-comedic self-critique within a gauze of featherlight melodics, and as he sings, a breeze of guitar tessellations floats behind him, simulating the sweet guilt-inducing pleasure that comes from buying things simply for the sake of buying them.
"There's something that excites me in the punk and rock traditions of very succinct polemic, having just one or two sentences be as potent and more memorable than a 20 page academic essay will ever be," he explained. "My Things" represents a modern engagement with these traditions, one that skewers a culture where the lack of a headphone jack is a dominant news item.
For Brower Brown, this world of "things", vanity, and capitalistic exploitation isn't all-encompassing; there are ways, according to him, to temporarily evade it. "For those of us who can spend our free time how we like, to make art, to go to shows, to spend time with friends and family on our terms, we're constantly creating spaces that defy the logic of commodification," he argued. "There's enormous room to create meaningful, if partial, escapes from it. You don't need to hold out hope for some type of total escape and total absolution from it." Music, he says, is one of these escapes. As "Nunca" proves, simply pressing play on a cassette player, letting a song take shape around you, can conjure a feeling of oneness with others that refutes the egocentricity that capitalism demands.
"Happiness", the highlight of the LP's first act, investigates another way to corrode this egocentricity: finding happiness through introspection and self-discovery rather than superficial attention. Over a driving bassline that seems to bubble up to the track's surface, to bring you up to this surface with it, Brower Brown urges an unseen companion to dive into her own head, to avow her deepest motivations and go wherever they push her. "It's a risk / You'll never be what you're not", he sings, weaponizing a prototypically twee Trails and Ways melody into a call for the abandonment of self-editorialization. "That's an idea I kept coming back to on this record: you have to get over the idea that you can perfectly modify and market yourself to those around you, and instead find power in a more open, vulnerable, honest, and ultimately fearless way of being and speaking to other people," Brower Brown explained.
Despite the dream-pop-punk sound that pervades "Happiness", as well standouts like "Get Loud" and "Ursula", Own It never sounds like the work of a totally new band. Brower Brown and Quirk seem to dig into the same sonic imagination that was elucidated on Trilingual as well as 2015's Pathology. "Even though we took this risk to bring in much rawer, punkier sounds into the space of the record, both our conscious and unconscious habits of production ended up making everything have some of the smoothness, softness, and dreaminess that we've been finding throughout our recording career," he said. Own It suggests that there could be many different sides to the Trails and Ways sound, more influences to disinter and new visions to chase, and that this recording career may just be getting started.