Shoegaze and twee are the kissing cousins of the indie pop family, not least of all because the addition of fuzz, reverb, delay, and whatever else can be reliably depended upon to add heft and shape to slight songs. Cynicism aside, the results of that pairing can be dazzling when songs take precedent over pedals: atmosphere that sings, riffs that swell and recede, vocals that emanate like a chorus of cherubs hidden in gauzy clouds.
That’s the case with Grass Stains & Novacaine, the debut full-length from San Francisco’s Seablite, which represents a huge step forward for the band. While their self-titled EP was rickety good fun, a bubbly if amateurish pastiche of early ‘80s EPs from the Bangles (for the harmonies) and the Shop Assistants (for the fuzz), the catchy and compact songs on Grass Stains & Novocaine feel fully formed and newly confident.
The overarching influence on Seablite’s sound is unmistakably Lush, drawing heavily on that band’s M.O. of cheerful pop melodies, undulating female harmonies, and lyrics that you can’t really understand, because it’s not about the words so much as the overall mood. Sometimes, the influence is incredibly pointed —“(He’s a) Vacuum Cleaner” could’ve easily have been a Split b-side while “Polygraph” reworks gauzy kiss-off “Hypocrite” —but other times the band embraces the jingle-jangle optimism of Ecstasy and Wine-era My Bloody Valentine (try the “Haggard”) and the breathless cuddle punk of Tiger Trap (“Polygraph.”)
The album’s centerpiece is “Heart Mountain,” a truly beautiful song that chimes like a clockwork songbird and revolves around a seemingly throwaway chorus about riding “a train to another place,” but takes on devastating new meaning when you realize that it’s about traveling to the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Japanese internment camp. In its best moments, Grass Stains & Novacaine strikes this balance again and again, conjuring sweetness and light out of shadows and making the LP a worthy entry in the grand tradition of unassumingly great Bay Area indie pop.
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