Welcome to a new and improved Beandon’s Musical Corner, the only place on campus for in-depth, exhaustive reviews of the latest releases in rock, jazz, experimental … and pretty much everything else. Brandon Rupp (also known by his mononymous musical title “beandon,” under which he releases music and DJs as KZSU’s Student Music Director) explores a new title and gives unfiltered feedback, regardless of the genre. Feel free to send him music; he’d love to take a look!
In the town of Wallsocket, Michigan, there are small-town staples like turnpikes, supermarkets and picket fences. However, like the town of Lumberton in David Lynch’s 1986 film “Blue Velvet,” there lies a darker, more sinister current under the deceptively traditional façade.
Odds are you’ll run into a variety of unique Wallsocket characters, such as a crystal-meth-addled white-collar thief or a billionaire’s nepotistic daughter who shoplifts from CVS. But the most interesting thing about Wallsocket? It’s not a real place.
Wallsocket, Michigan is in fact the fictional center of “Wallsocket,” the ambitious sophomore release by San Francisco-born, New York-based musician April Harper Grey, known as “underscores.” A capital-C concept album, “Wallsocket” stands out as one of the boldest and most unique artistic statements this year.
“Wallsocket” is an absolute buffet for music criticism, featuring an overabundance of idiosyncratic — and often contradictory — elements to chew on. This review could proceed hundreds of different ways, but I’m most interested in how Grey has grown from her first record, “fishmonger,” to this sprawling concept album released in September.
While “fishmonger” was an accomplished lo-fi release that landed her gigs at big name festivals like Lollapalooza and collaborations with Dylan Brady of 100 gecs and Benny Blanco, “Wallsocket” is a complete left-field swing I cannot help but attempt to unpack. I suspect that the dramatic improvement in quality — from great to masterful — comes as a result of Grey refining her immense musical vocabulary to match her distinctive lyrical imagery.
A speciality for this column has been highlighting music that recklessly evades genre. There are few things more impressive than artists who are so versatile that they cannot be pinned down under a label or two. On “Wallsocket,” Grey gleefully mixes dozens of disparate elements: the high-pitched vocals of hyperpop, the adventurous sampling of plunderphonics, glitchy production and a punkish energy that propels nearly every track into the stratosphere. It’s probably the first stadium-ready bedroom pop album; it features the only folk songs littered with dubstep wobbles.
But the album isn’t a mess, and these choices aren’t without reason. Grey uses her musical versatility to ironically complement unique vignettes in each song.
Most of these songs touch on themes and topics I’ve never even heard mentioned before. For example, the rocking opener, “Cops and Robbers,” discusses how as-seen-on-TV “ski mask and gun” bank robberies have gone out of style, while internal embezzlement by an employee became more likely. It’s probably the first song to focus on “deceased family member identity theft.”
The ironic deployment of contrasting styles is put on full display: the relatively mundane subject of white-collar crime is paired with the album’s most aggressive instrumental, featuring glitchy breaks and heavily distorted guitars backing Grey’s snarling punk vocals. This is also probably the album’s catchiest song, with the simple advice to “get on the inside: you gotta do it like me.”
Another song that heavily plays ironic contrast, “Shoot to kill, kill your darlings,” questions the motives of affluent people who join the military: “You’re the son of a lawyer and the son of a doctor / With dreams of holding a gun and jumping out of a chopper. / And everyone here is a poor kid right out of high school / But you’re different from the rest of your peers / You’re the only one who knows why they’re here.”
Grey’s skillful writing balances serious class commentary with dark humor, both of which are further complicated by the upbeat indietronica instrumental (with percussion sampled from real cocking guns) and dinky Casio keyboard refrains.
“Shoot to kill, kill your darlings” takes a sincere turn with its empathetic ending: a looping sample of “I just don’t want you to die,” piercing through the shield of irony. Grey extends an arm to the subjects of her stories, valuing their lives as truly worth examining.
“Wallsocket” is less of a coherent narrative as it is a series of short stories in musical form. However, Grey’s perfectionist talents bring the entire project together: she played all of the instruments, wrote all of the songs and even single-handedly produced the vast majority of the album. As a result of this control, every “i” is dotted; every “t” crossed.
Like a film auteur, each of her unique turns or repeated motifs feels purposeful, and even cinematic. Lyrically, Grey gracefully sweeps her camera’s viewfinder through the town of “Wallsocket” to physically construct an entire world around the listener.
The music videos for this record have also been among the best of the year: Shot mostly with a single iPhone, they are a mix of a David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” and a Lars von Trier film. In certain shots, the director straps the iPhone to a drone and actually sweeps through the town.
I want to emphasize that Grey’s lyrics extend far past the incredibly low bar we’ve set for what is poetry set to music. Grey utilizes her prowess wisely. The seven-minute centerpiece “Geez Louise” balances themes of gender identity, religious trauma and the effects of colonization in the album’s most personal moment.
The harrowing “Johnny Johnny Johnny,” a first-person recounting by a young girl who was groomed and molested by the titular pedophile Johnny, could have easily fallen apart in the hands of a less talented writer. The main refrain is based around the childhood game of Johnny Whoop. Through Grey’s invocation of the game, she highlights the innocence of the narrator and alludes to a child’s tendency to follow orders (as is the crux of the game).
But the song quickly becomes darker: “And once he told me he was so glad / That I hadn’t been touched yet / I exited my body and it got up off the carpet / and it kept on telling lies until they got me out the door.”
Here, the traumatized narrator’s depersonalization manifests in her altered point of view (her body becoming an “it”) for the latter two lines. Such empathetic choices of language are not something you see often in music, especially not in the midst of the year’s catchiest dance-pop instrumental — once more, ironic contrast between the music and lyrics comes into the equation.
Every song on “Wallsocket” sees Grey’s strong attention to detail. This album contains imagery and a sheer sense of scope that isn’t often associated with modern music. Over the course of 12 songs and 55 minutes, the listener lives 12 lives, experiences 12 defining moments.
With the monumental “Wallsocket,” Grey has done something more than craft empathetic, fiercely written vignettes or hook-laden, genre-hopping pop songs; she has created a world — and an artistic voice — that she can uniquely call her own.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.