Rosali 2024
Photo: Asia Harman / Pitch Perfect PR

Rosali’s ‘Bite Down’ Sounds Classic

Rosali’s Bite Down is a deceptively smooth ride that threatens to pull you under at any moment. Its classic sound draws from Fleetwood Mac and 1970s music.

Bite Down
22 March 2024

Rosali Middleman summarizes her new album Bite Down as “like the Velvet Underground covering Fleetwood Mac“. This is an apt description of what Middleman calls “kind of a classic sound”. It’s also an oxymoron for anyone raised in a 1970s musical world where the Velvets stood for the noncommercial underground avant-garde and Fleetwood Mac were their evil radio-friendly sunny California chart-topping twin (or vice versa). It’s a sign of the times not only that the marriage works but that it somehow almost sounds like something you might have heard back then. The Velvets’ fierce undertow pulls against the Mac’s propulsive melodies as Middleman’s confident vocals bob and weave through them both. It’s a deceptively smooth ride that threatens to pull you under at any moment.

Rosali’s first release on Merge Records, Bite Down, is singer-songwriter and guitarist Middleman’s second one backed by Mowed Sound (David Nance on bass, James Schroeder on guitar, and Kevin Donahue on drums and percussion). They’re joined by Destroyer collaborator Ted Bois on keyboards and a few other guests, and they’ve really hit their stride. As Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, who toured with them after No Medium was released in 2021, puts it in the bio for the new album: “They rip and create space and fill it up with what seems like reckless abandon, but listen carefully or listen for a while, and you’ll find them paying real close attention to each other and exactly what the song demands. … It’s a strange telepathic brew.”

No Medium was a country-tinged indie rock showcase for Rosali Middleman’s vocals and Schroeder’s guitar. “My Kind” and “Hopeless” on the new album hark back to this sound: soaring vocals, driving rhythms, verses alternating discretely with guitar solos, and a reprise outro on the former; countrified shuffle, a catchy chorus, and a metaphor of love as a game of cards on the latter. They’re solid songs with winning grace notes—”My Kind” opens on a 20-second orchestra-tuning cacophony before finally kicking into power chords, and “Hopeless” bursts into a furious if regrettably brief guitar solo before the final chorus. But they primarily work to show just how much better—both tighter and weirder—the rest of the album is.

Mowed Sound were an excellent backing band on No Medium, but here they’re fully intertwined with Middleman’s vocals and lyrics. Schroeber’s guitar doesn’t solo so much as weave in and out, stitching everything else together. Most songs were tracked live, with only vocals and some guest parts overdubbed later. Sometimes, Middleman says, she would complete or refine the lyrics with direct reference to Schroeder’s lines. Other times, “I think the power of us playing together is so potent” that she didn’t need to add lyrics and let the guitar do the singing.

On the paradoxically mid-tempo “Slow Pain“, that guitar emerges into the song as if in response to the lyrics’ plea for a release from grief and fear of it “spilling out”. Both Middleman’s voice and Schroeder’s playing are at once constrained and distorted. Rather than seeking effects through piercing highs, her vocals lean into rich everyday depth, resonating and stretching words just as Schroeder’s bends and wavers notes without extended arpeggios or runs. It’s a virtuosic duet, especially when, as on “Slow Pain”, Middleman insinuates vocal fills behind Schroeber’s contained explosions. It’s a loud record, but it relies equally on its quiet moments, like Megan Siebe’s cello that surfaces with devastating effect out of the song’s fade, as if to remind us that however much you accept or sing over slow pain, it always lingers there to get the last word: “You can hear her draw out the final note, but it shifted the whole energy of the song”.

Bite Down is beautifully frontloaded. “On Tonight“, perhaps its Fleetwood Mac-iest track, leads off with Donahue tapping the beat for Nance’s hooky six-note bassline, a strumming rhythm guitar, and a down-mixed Schroeder in a mid-tempo song about the temptation of a onetime hookup. Rosali Middleman’s assured vocal lets us know it’s about making a decision rather than loss of control, and when Schroeder’s guitar finally emerges for the closing minute, it feels like a sweeping wash of euphoric indecision. The equally poppy “Rewind” follows, a domestic song to mirror the road story of “On Tonight”. Here, too, Middleman dwells luxuriantly in her words, stretching “rewind with you” into a time-stopping interlude before the guitars do the same, fluttering furiously in place in a burst of constrained distortion. In the extended outro, they do it all over again together.

Bejar says of these two songs, “They sound like they’ve fought their way to get to that sense of ease,” and I can’t imagine it said better. It’s as if they’ve been where the Velvets went but returned with Fleetwood Mac’s melodic fluidity. “Gather my bones, go back home, be alone,” Rosali sang on No Medium. She and the band dispensed with the melodrama after that and instead wedded the Mac’s limpid pop with the Velvets’ willful distortions.

The third track, “Hills on Fire“, gives the first verse over altogether to a minute of Schroeder’s pinched-out beauty that wouldn’t sound out of place in the “Feedback” segment of an early Grateful Dead show. Except that it’s accompanied by a bucolic folk lilt from the rest of the band. It shouldn’t work, but it captures perfectly the tension of stasis and chaos in the song’s title. It segues seamlessly into the elegiac vocal, where Middleman wrings as much vibrato out of the end words as Schroeder does from his guitar. Maintained throughout, the hushed pace intensifies the song’s emotional impact; fire channeled with hard-won ease.

Nothing else on Bite Down quite matches the heights of the first three songs, but there’s no letdown, either. The title song suggests another way to approach Bite Down, highlighting Bois’s jazzy vamp and Siebe’s slithering cello. Rosali Middleman sings through the two verses and chorus twice, compensating for the lack of end rhymes in the verses by fully savoring the equivocal triple rhyme in the chorus and its unrhymed fourth: “I keep on walking / Putting rocks in my pocket / I’m drawn to the docks and / Eternal life”. “Biting down” means pressing every bit of juice out of our less-than-ideal lives. “It’s like getting a grasp on something, sinking your teeth into it, understanding whatever it is.” The fight is all still there but filtered through the art they’ve made of it.

Middleman says that the gorgeous closing track was “pretty much written in one sitting; that felt like a prayer that came out”. It’s fitting that “May It Be on Offer” is also the song she cites in a different interview as having the most Velvet Underground in it. It really does have both. There’s a shimmering synth, a plaintive guitar, and a yearning vocal. There’s also a guitar channeling John Cale’s viola drone and a drumbeat pounding out Mo Tucker’s primal tom-tom beat. It’s neither an ironic marriage nor a knowing juxtaposition. Instead, as the slow march plays out, they’re somehow at peace with one another but not at rest. “And I’ll sit for hours / Gazing at the light,” Middleman concludes. “And I do wonder / And waste my life / No, I don’t wonder / If I waste my life.” In other words, the crisis is still there. There’s no resolution in sight, but there’s understanding in the words as in the music.

There’s certainly other music here than the Velvet Underground and Fleetwood Mac. Rosali Middleman has referenced Crazy Horse in interviews, and you can hear their overlay of screaming rawness and folk beauty from time to time. The way the natural world shimmers with deeper meaning feels drawn from Van Morrison, and not just a line like “There’s a sweet cold water / Where I refresh my mind” in “May It Be on Offer”. It really is “kind of a classic sound”, even as the world in which the Velvets and the Mac inhabit the same “canon” has only existed since 21st-century streaming. But when it produces music this classic, it’s a welcome development since it lets us still hear all the chaos that’s been raging through the years.

RATING 8 / 10