Stef Chura's 'Midnight' Is a Scorching, Emotive Indie Rock Masterstroke
Midnight fulfills Stef Chura's promise. Broad in scope, its 12 songs cover a range of moods, tones, and energies.
7 June 2019
If Stef Chura's debut LP Messes was an appetizer, Midnight is the teased main course. The former 2017 record comprised a bevy of 1990s-twinged, pop-inflected garage rock, anchored by Chura's sinuously sneering vocals, that was instantly rewarding while promising something bigger. Midnight fulfills that promise, Chura having honed and expanded its predecessor's strengths. Broad in scope, its 12 songs cover a range of moods, tones, and energies. Emerging from and tethered to the same nucleus, the songs' varying styles could initially seem competitive with one other, but on repeated listens, it becomes clear how precisely woven the songs are in the complete tapestry.
In its first tantalizing and (vaguely taunting) rhythmic notes of opener "All I Do Is Lie", Midnight rolls out with a self-assured strut. What hits immediately is that while Messes' lo-fi charm is retained, Midnight's overall sound is richer and deeper, owed to producer Will Toledo (AKA: Car Seat Headrest). It warmly envelops the listener, pulling you into the world Chura's creating rather than merely being presented before you to observe. "All I do is lie / Horizontal, in your bed, I am / Repeating everything you said," Chura intones, deadpan and off-kilter with the meter to convey resignation. Initially minimalistic with drummer Ryan Clancy's metronomic percussion, Toledo's bouncy bass line, and Chura's twitchy guitars, the chorus finds the tension breaking like a wave, Chura's vocals turning frenzied. A fazed guitar arises in its wake to tether it back to the next verse, in turn, followed by a more explosive second refrain. That fazed, synthy part then reappears to briefly temper the tune before a jagged swirl brings things to a seeming close about the 3:30-mark. A brief gap ensues before screeching feedback flares behind Chura as she chants "If you do it to me / I don't care / I can do it to you, too", getting increasingly unhinged.
This abrupt shift, emerging chrysalis like from the song's first half, initially could be mistaken as the record's second track. Considering this, the nearly six-minute opener is something of a two-part suite, impressionistically depicting the narrator going from blasé to defiant. And, masterfully, just as it winds down, the music simultaneously swells back to a place near where the whole piece started, bridging the gap.
The second track "Scream" is unabashed and infectiously poppy. Start-stop percussion in the verses rolls up against rollicking refrains, Chura's inimitable tremulous trill delivering all the catharsis its title implies. Leaving the listener to catch their breath, it's followed by "Degrees", the album's down-tempo, meditative centerpiece. Slowly unfurling and playing well with the negative space between notes, it imparts an intimate, almost voyeuristic vibe. As with "All I Do Is Lie", it employs the Pixies-perfected quiet-loud-quiet paradigm, the verses being as proportionally hushed as the choruses are cacophonous. The final chorus, where you would think the song would suddenly stop, instead is followed by several seconds of silence, in turn, followed by haunting organ notes. For the next minute and a half, the keys and drums dance around each other before ushering the song out in an oddly ceremonial manner.
The hard-rocking discord of "Method Man" is a snarling evisceration of well-actually mansplainers. Musically, its frayed structure sounds as if it's being pulled apart at the seams, which perfectly conveys the frustration coming to a head. The refrain is frenetic, Chura spitting out the lyrics she's singing so quickly it's as if she can't get them out fast enough. Halfway in, a buzzsaw bass line hits, getting faster and faster as Chura sings more and more energetically, the whole breakdown having a feeling of an accelerating car taking a corner on two wheels before it suddenly crashes.
Four songs in, the record's pattern of alternating longer, more introspective and nuanced tunes with shorter, scorching rockers is established. But then fifth cut "Trumbull" merges the two approaches by being one of the album's shortest at just longer than a minute while being its most instrumentally minimal. As a piano ballad, it's a nostalgic tribute to a stretch of road in Chura's hometown of Detroit. At a single verse, its briefness is its strength, brushing in like a stray glimmer of longing before fleeting away.
On its heels is the jubilant "Jumping Jack". With cowbell plinking and dueling guitar riffs, it's arguably the record's most fun moment, if not its more memorable. Following is the thoroughly devastating "Sincerely Yours", opening with Chura at her most plaintive vocally amid sparse guitar. As can be inferred by the title, the song paints a scene of one penning a letter to a lost love, one that may never be sent but needs to be written if only for the author to process their station in a relationship's aftermath. "I've done much better than this / Still I'm waiting here at the end of this list / These demons do not resist / 'Cause I'm fucked up and I'm ready / I'll take what I know you can't give," Chura sings, exuding the down-and-out heartache inherent to the open-letter style of the lyrics. Instrumentally, it manages to both seethe and simmer, building with an industrial scraping din that nearly sneaks up on you because the lyrics enthrall you.
Aptly placed to cleanse the emotional wreckage left by "Sincerely Yours" is "3D Girl". In a just world, it would be a radio hit, so unrelentingly hook-laden and urgent it is. A bubbly synth line loops around the fiery dispatches of guitar distortion as Chura proclaims "My girl is three-dimensional" with panache. The jittery shuffle of the semi-title track "Sweet, Sweet Midnight" is the quirkiest of the lot, its instrumentation skittering and twitching all over the place and giving a sense of unease contrasting with the soothing vocals. Speaking of, Toledo gets in a vocal appearance, his patented dreary delivery dueting with Chura. The two's voices complement each other quite nicely, being similar in their inflections. Toledo's voice shows up again on the brief curio "Love Song", cooing behind Chura and distantly echoing her. The song has a subtle grin about it, something of a tongue-in-cheek concession to the demand for or expectation of a quote-unquote love song.
Proceedings begin to wrap up with penultimate "They'll Never", a more aggressive thematic continuation of "Trumbull". Surging with immediacy around fuzzed-out guitars, Chura defies anyone to tear down a source of refuge. She's said the song was inspired by a house she formerly occupied, and that symbolism works to instill the stalwart resistance at having such a totem of one's history removed. "They'll never tear this place apart," she sing-howls in the end, offering it as a confrontational dare.
Serving as an apt closer is an achingly fragile and frayed cover of Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face". Simply put, this is how a cover should be done. Chura reworks it to a degree as to make one think she wrote it. A little bit shoegazey, a bit bedroom pop, it becomes a trembling torch song, the first verse featuring Chura's heartrending vocals and a simple guitar part. When the drums and bass come in, they don't detract from the intimacy but instead add a cinematic scope, capped off with a whirl of Chura's layered vocals toppling over one another. When it hits its final note, there is a true sense of finality, not just for the song, but for the album. Thus, the bold choice to close the record with a cover is a successful gamble.
Top to bottom, Midnight is a helluva strong record. Not a song is extraneous, the briefest numbers serving to give listeners respite for the longer ones. The rockers burn with righteous indignation that is inclusive rather than insular, empowering instead of bemoaning. If Messes promised, Midnight not only delivers but cements Chura's place as a voice to be reckoned with in the modern indie rock landscape.