I first heard of Soul Low when my friend Maggie invited me to a house party in the spring of 2013. She said the band would be playing a short gig in the living room of the house. She told me they were a Milwaukee band and proceeded to describe their sound in a list of superlatives with “amazing” being uttered at least three times. I was intrigued, not necessarily because I was expecting a life-altering show, but because I will never pass up an opportunity to go to a house party. And the addition of music made it all the more intriguing.
Upon arriving at the house, I walked up a flight of stairs and entered a dark, cramped living room. Thirty people crowded around a microphone, drum set and pair of guitars. Everyone was drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. Strange paintings hung from the ceiling. An antique foot pedal organ held court in the corner of a room. The kitchen was dark, cluttered and filled with empty bottles. The toilet in the house’s only bathroom had a thick, dark layer of residue coating its bowl.
It was a strange environment. Because of the insane interior design of the house, I half expected the members of Soul Low to sport unkempt hair and beards, colorful Hawaiian shirts and a general air of apathy-fueled anarchism. I was surprised, then, to see four boyish guys walk behind each of their respective instruments. Each one of them was smiling. They could have been supporting characters in “Juno.”
Then they started playing. Singer Jake Balistrieri sung in a shaky, high-pitched voice as Charlie Celenza pounded out punchy rhythms on his beaten drum set. Their music was bright and youthful, with a sound full of childlike wonder. But beneath the surface was bitter insecurity; with his eyes closed and sweat running down his forehead, Balistrieri sang lines like, “Sometimes I wish that I was more important / But I’d be careful ’cause I don’t wanna be different,” as the band exploded into raw, garage rock choruses.
On its debut album, ‘UNEASY’, Soul Low continue milking the youthful angst I witnessed in that dark, crowded living room. It seems that the current indiesphere-among bands like Youth Lagoon, The Flaming Lips and Tame Impala-has an obsession with youthfully introspective lyrics coated in walls of sugary psychedelic noise. Soul Low takes on a garage rock sound that borders on lo-fi, but they retain “childwave” aspects of their music to create emotionally ambiguous but, ultimately, very fun songs.
The centerpiece of ‘UNEASY’ is a lovely, two-minute tune called “Silence.” It’s a deceptively simple song with upbeat mandolin chords and lyrics like, “I hate the sound of people, moving all around / I prefer the sound of silence, that’s a sound that’s so profound / That’s a true achievement of the ol’ human race / To cut out all the noise and build a silent place.” The song is a meditation on the habitual loudness that humans have created around us and the need to escape it all, but it also comments on things like “feeling shitty” constantly and “That your blood’s not red until you’re dead/ While you’re alive it’s blue.”
On the emotional track “Son,” longing electric guitar notes sprout atop a blissful acoustic guitar arpeggio and sustained bass notes. Balistrieri sings, “I want a son to show him the things I’ve done/ Dance around the living room playing with my favorite tunes/ To teach him things that took so long to learn/ Make it all seem easier, put in simple terms.” Balistrieri sings these lines in a gentle, shaky voice. It’s the sound of loneliness, of a guy who wants a child to not only provide company but talk to about the mundane aspects of adult life-and conversely the excitement of being a child.
Nearly every song on the album focuses on the need to belong and simultaneously escape from the monotony of everyday life. “Cliffs” concerns the desire to be more important. “Take Time” tells a story of unrequited love. “Wake Up Pains” is a thesis on setting oneself up for a shitty future that’s not all bad because it will still have love.
‘UNEASY’ is a remarkably strong debut from a remarkably promising band. Sharp songwriting abounds. The instrumentation is on par with Broken Social Scene or Built to Spill’s in its raw, melodic acoustics. Until the next house party, devour this album and immerse yourself in the beautiful, insecure little world Soul Low has created.
4 out of 5 stars