Art has always been a way to explore deep-seated problems troubling humanity. Especially given the political climate today, musicians have often turned to their craft to process confusion, anger, and frustration through their releases. But beyond politics, music also proves a worthwhile way to sort through the qualities common among all people: particularly, love and loss. In their EP Amends, the dream-pop duo Them Are Us Too explores the fabric of grief.
Them Are Us Too was formed by schoolmates Kennedy Ashlyn and Cash Askew. Their debut album, Remain, gained sizable attention from fans and media outlets alike. Earning comparisons to synthpop royalty like Cults and the Cocteau Twins, Them Are Us Too—affectionately referred to as TAUT by fans—enjoyed sizable hype anticipating the follow-up to their big debut. However, tragically, Askew passed away in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland in 2016. Amends is what remains of recordings and demos that Ashlyn stitched together with the help of friends and family.
Altogether, the collaborative, sonically unprecedented album succeeds in both paying homage to Askew’s memory and presenting a sophisticated, developed sound to their established fan base and new listeners alike. In a statement announcing the release of the album, Ashlyn writes, ” Amends is a collaborative effort between TAUT and some of Cash’s dearest friends and family, culminating in a final ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’ Nothing will ever compensate for the loss of Cash, but as we struggle to put together the pieces of what the world is now, what life is now, I hope this record can help to fill in the gaps. And give us some amount of peace.”
While listening, I was struck by how the six-song track list that makes up Amends easily serves as a step-by-step walkthrough of the classic six steps of grief coined by psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s. Opening “Angelene” addresses the bare shock that comes with learning of a close friend passing. Kennedy sings, “Why won’t you speak to me now?” This lyrical sentiment perfectly encapsulates the jolting realization that you will never have a conversation with the person you were close with again.
“Grey Water” embodies the second stage of grief: denial. The song starts in on an ominous drum kit, bleeding into Askew’s twinkly guitar riffs. The song ultimately melds guitar and vocals, resulting in an angelic bridge that complements the lyrical themes evoking rain, gloom, and nighttime — the darkness that communicates unknowing. “Floor” marks a huge sonic transition. Jarring, dissonant, throbbing, and out-of-line with the dreamy saccharine sounds native to the rest of Amends, this song is the epitome of the frustration and rage that comes with the third step of grief: anger.
“No One” is perhaps the most retro-reminiscent contribution to the album, with the jagged edge from “Floor” bleeding into the track. The sound shifts again with willowy, wispy “Could Deepen”, a song that consistently surprises with its mesh of murky instrumentation and Ashlyn’s echoing, sobbing vocals, encapsulating the true grieving period. Of course, final track “Amends” evokes acceptance, tying together the eclectic nature of the entire EP in one, tight package. At its best, Amends seeks to explore the fabric of grief with swaths of synth and flourishes of guitar—all threaded together by Ashlyn’s incredible, transcendent, Florence Welsh-like vocals. The result is often sad, consistently beautiful, and altogether in a sonic league of its own.
On a more technical level, Amends provides an interesting landscape to explore the juxtaposition of lo-fi and highly produced sounds. While Remain maintained a through-line of dream pop, that genre label feels reductive when considering Amends. Due to the piecemeal nature of the album, which utilizes both studio sounds and demos recorded beforehand, the eclectic mix of recording quality often results in a truly unique musical experience. Though it may seem as though the gritty, DIY element of Askew’s recordings would cause tension when interacting with the ethereal vocals and ultra-electro synth that TAUT has built its career on, the result is refreshing, intriguing, and consistently amazing.
The track “Could Deepen” is perhaps the best example of this transfusion of sounds. The expansive, 10-minute song is steeped in the echoing sound quality one would expect from a lo-fi album. The bridge builds to a deafening power chord but then explodes into the peppy beat of a dream-pop drum kit. As the ten-minute track continues, it builds to a huge catharsis with Ashlyn singing, “Who am I?” More apt, what is this? This song and many other moments on Amends points towards a new frontier for the genre. It’s not always easy listening, but it’s certainly interesting listening. The organic and inventive nature of Amends exposes the duo’s flexibility and versatility– an aspect that was perhaps less apparent in Remain.
It’s strange to write about a project of which the circumstances surrounding its conception can never and will never be replicated. The album is rooted in its collaborative nature, as the making of it was supervised by a potpourri of those closest to Ashlyn and Askew — different from the usual industry professionals that aid in the creation of such an album. Similarly, Ashlyn has already moved on to a new project, SRSQ, which promises new music soon.
So, while Amends is not devoid of faults—the sound can come off of as monotonous if listened-to in one sitting; Ashlyn’s vocals sometimes take on a chesty, throaty sound that reads as amateur; at some point, one must ask themselves how much synth is too much synth — these aspects feel forgivable. The faults, the cracks, the absences, the shortcomings become part of the sound, the vision, the album itself. Amends is by no means a perfect, but its success lies in its imperfections. Imperfection is human, and it’s this blatant humanity that makes Amends an intriguing and thought-provoking piece of art.