There’s something terribly exciting about the freshman attempt. Perhaps it’s the novelty, the unimpeachable ideals of love and the melancholic pseudo-disasters, but it’s spectacular to be new at something.
That said, the music world saw the release of two freshmen albums last week, Gem Club’s “Breakers” and Youth Lagoon’s “The Year of Hibernation.” With varying degrees of success, both bands craft their respective landscapes with all of the earnestness and sincerity that one would expect from the virgin-like and the green-stemmed.
Of course, “virgin-like” might be overdoing it for Gem Club, a collaboration between pianist/vocalist Christopher Barnes and cellist Kristen Drymala, both of whom are classically trained musicians. The pair first played at an 80’s-themed house party two years ago. The melancholic pair is eager to create delicate piano cycles, touched by the faintest soar of cello.
Barnes’ voice haunts over these ermine compositions, floating in between a wounded falsetto and a less fragile tenor. But it is not only the quality of his vocals which suggest ectoplasm; it’s Barnes’ constant turning pastward, the way he moans “Where are you now?” on the track “Black Ships” or the way the chimes on “Breakers” seem to reverberate with a shattered nostalgia. In every track, the past seems to recede, as if flooded away, as if rent or eroded with wind.
Yet this insistence on melancholia and memory can become somewhat overbearing—none of Breakers’ tracks offer reprieve. So maybe finally the album is frigid—but I don’t want that to connote expanse, storm, tundra. Gem Club has the emotional range of an icebox.
We then turn to Youth Lagoon’s “The Year of Hibernation,” a sure-footed collection of dream pop that sounds as if it were crafted and recorded in a locked, dusk-lit bedroom—which might actually be the case. The man behind Youth Lagoon is 22 year-old Idahoan Trevor Powers, who dropped his English Literature degree to pursue music.
On first listen, it’s easy to hear that Powers’ songwriting applies to a certain formula. He starts out with something hushed and minimalistic. Then comes Powers’ voice, reverberated and distorted. Slowly, embellishments are added, until finally the tracks rollick and roll, achieving an anthemic sound. The entire album is a kind of fever dream.
Nowhere is this formula better employed than in “Daydream,” a track as living and as sleep-swept as its name implies. It drifts in between some finely-crafted guitar riffs, minimal synth beats, strange simulated whistles and finally swells to a gamboling two-minute instrumental.
While Youth Lagoon seems to share little with Gem Club, the two bands couldn’t be closer in effect. If the flume of red leaves inspire bouts of nostalgia, it might be time to give both bands a listen.