Julia Brown // An Abundance of Strawberries
by Jeffrey Holland on February 3, 2016
Posted in: Album Review, Music, Pop, Rock
I love lo-fi. There’s a certain warm, human charm to a song that sounds like it could have been recorded in a 17-year-old’s bedroom. Imperfections in the recording of a song can give it life and humanity, the way Monet’s imperfect brushstrokes infuse his energy into the reflections of a pond full of water lilies.
At the same time, the virtues of lo-fi production are not at all per se. That is to say, there’s a lot of shitty lo-fi out there. Although distortion, fuzz, reverb, clipping, and tastefully out-of-tune vocals can lend a song beauty, they can also make a song worse if it’s just not a good song to begin with. Good songwriting is what distinguishes The Mountain Goats, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Pavement, The Microphones, and Julia Brown as great lo-fi artists. The songwriting is the main attraction, not the “lo-fi-ness.” The lo-fi aesthetic adds complexity to the finished product, and also makes an artistic statement: You are listening to this music on my terms, not yours. You can only look at my songs through the lens I give you. But it’s what you are looking at through the lens that truly makes a difference.
Julia Brown was a short-lived project of Sam Ray, the namesake of the WRMC show “sam ray’s other cool band,” hosted by Jackson Frons (Thanks for the edits, Jackson). Aside from Julia Brown, Ray is also the singer-songwriter behind the lo-fi project Teen Suicide, a band which is depressive, melodramatic, and brilliant in its own way—and will apparently release a new album on April 1. Teen Suicide, as well as Ray’s acoustic project Starry Cat, preceded Julia Brown musically and chronologically; and a few of the members of Teen Suicide, Caroline White and Alex Simke, were involved in Julia Brown as well. Ray also leads the ambient electronic project Ricky Eat Acid. An Abundance of Strawberries is Julia Brown’s only full-length album, and has been in public circulation on the internet for a long time, but had not been officially released until this past month. Back in 2013, Ray made a telling Facebook post about Julia Brown, which has since been deleted but was quoted by Jayson Greene in Pitchfork’s review of Julia Brown’s debut EP to be close to you: “If you liked Teen Suicide ‘cause of pop songwriting you’ll probably like the new band but if you just liked the really over-dramatic drug addict depression catharsis stuff you’ll be disappointed and I’ll be glad.”
Harsh words for many of his fans, but Ray’s summary of how Julia Brown compares to Teen Suicide is largely accurate. If you like to hear pretty pop melodies through a carefully constructed lens of widely varied and quirky but gentle lo-fi production, An Abundance of Strawberries is your album. The melodies on Teen Suicide records are lovely too, but always sung through a voice of fragility and despair, with lyrics clearly meant to be cried over. And Teen Suicide’s production is not gentle. There are some very harsh grunge and punk influences in their brand of melancholy indie pop. Those influences are almost completely absent on Strawberries. The Teen Suicide songs that would be most at home on Strawberries are the ones that disarm the listener with quiet gentleness: for example, Teen Suicide’s “Haunt Me (x 3)”, which is comparable to Julia Brown’s “All Alone in Bed”.
The biggest difference between Julia Brown and Teen Suicide, however, is the lyrics. The emotions on Strawberries are much more complicated, or at least expressed with more maturity: “When death comes to claim what I’ve loved the most, you’ll know I’ve loved this world so much,” Ray sings on “Loved”. The pain of loss and how it betrays a profound love of life was not a subject touched upon in Teen Suicide lyrics, which were often no more complicated than: “I wanna be haunted / I wanna be loved / I want a lot of friends and a lot of drugs.” It’s the difference between true emotional pain and simple teenage angst. Julia Brown’s lyrics are grown up.
There’s a lot of experimentation on Strawberries, and also a lot of pain hidden underneath the layers of sweetness. Ray’s passionate, half-screamed vocals on “25 days (may15)” are somewhat reminiscent of the tortured howls of Jamie Stewart from the experimental rock project Xiu Xiu, although the background to Ray’s vocals on “25 days” is much more subdued and lovely than anything Xiu Xiu would ever do, creating a unique contrast between vocals and background. But then the wild, frantic drumming and looping synthesizers on “You Can Always Hear Birds” make it sound almost like a lo-fi indie pop tribute to Zach Hill, drummer of the experimental rap group Death Grips, among other projects—until the frenetic drums turn into ambient cymbal crashes and the synths become psychedelic and shoegazey, while Ray sings inaudible lyrics about birds through a heavily filtered vocoder. The song takes you by surprise, and it’s one of the more brilliant moments on the album.
In fact, this album is full of surprising moments like the ones I mentioned above. You never know whether to expect dense synth chords and cheeky drum machines as in the beginning of “Without You (full),” cymbal crashes and insistent eighth-note guitar strumming as in the title track, an odd mix of piano, xylophone, and trip-hop drums as in “Snow Day,” or lo-fi piano that builds gradually and then makes way for epic, powerful orchestral instrumentation as in “The Body Descends.” There’s an immense variety of sonic textures, and thus a lot of potential standout tracks. But the common theme is a consistent backbone of thoughtful pop songwriting underneath layers of idiosyncratic production.
This collection of pop songs was recorded with a versatility that will keep you interested all the way through. It turned out that when Sam Ray stopped using songs as a release for his dark emotions and started putting some daylight into them, they were still just as good if not better. There’s always a time and a place for teen angst and for the early works of Teen Suicide, but it’s nice to know that even the angstiest of teens is capable of growing up.
BEST TRACKS: 1, 3, 7, 10
RIYL: Lo-fi, bedroom pop, Teen Suicide, Alex G, Elvis Depressedly
An Abundance of Strawberries was reissued January 15 on Joy Void. You can stream and download it on Bandcamp here.
Jeff Holland is a freshman from Cleveland, Ohio. During the fall and J-term, he hosted the low-key indie rock & pop show Mellow Melodies, and in the spring he’ll be back with a different time slot to bring you more indie tunes.