Here we are, back at it again with some more Yearly Yinz action, this time for Bored In Pittsburgh’s favorite local albums of 2020, arranged chronologically. This is not a “best-of” list, but a collection of works that resonated especially deeply.
ALONA – R.E.D
Imagine a flip phone filled with recordings of stark, brooding R&B songs. Then imagine that this phone was dropped in a puddle and left there for a few days. Then imagine that someone played the songs from the now-soggy phone’s speakers and figured out a way to take a daguerreotype of the sound waves. Then imagine that the daguerreotype was left to rust in a puddle for a few decades. There, you’ve gone and imagined yourself into R.E.D, the January debut from experimental duo ALONA. The album’s six songs feel weathered beyond recognition, with producer VRBA’s degraded, swirling synths and ambient drones creating a dimly-lit womb space from which vocalist Steph Alona croons like a sensuous ghost. Sure, I guess you could say that the aqueous “IFITWASU,” the doomy, whispering “DANCE SLOW,” or the barely-there “OUR STORY” are slow jams, but it’s in the same way that a dinosaur fossil is a dinosaur, the physical manifestation of a living thing’s slow decay. Like How To Dress Well’s Love Remains undressing in a candlelit bedroom, R.E.D turns skeletal, lo-fi sound into something creepily beautiful.
Sober Clones – Sober Clones CS
Sober Clones, a duo comprising members of punkers Speed Plans and dream-poppers Barlow, meld the former’s gritty directness with the latter’s effects-heavy stargazing to create joyous bursts of homespun, psychedelic pop. Recorded in-house by the two self-described “dorks in a room” using a rudimentary multitrack system, February’s Sober Clones CS is heavy on both hooks and fuzz. From the straightforward sugar blitzes of “Wait Till You Know” and “Do It Again” to the swirling, restrained strolls of “You Can” and “Girl on a Bike,” and even abstract sound experiments like “Sober Clones” and “(Rubber Stu Medley),” bits of melody manage to bubble to the surface of the phosphorescent stew and lodge themselves in the brain. The songs are concise; up until eight-minute, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink closer “Body Language,” the longest clocks in at under three minutes. The colorful creatures that adorn the album cover may resemble the anthropomorphic sleep demons from Babar The King, but instead of “Indolence,” “Discouragement,” and the like, these critters represent pure, wooly fun.
Watererer – To Finding Out
Multi-instrumentalists Matt Aelmore and David Bernabo find their way onto the Yearly Yinz again, this time not for goofy, surreal podcastery, but for their work on To Finding Out, the February release from avant-rock project Watererer (no, I didn’t accidentally add the extra “er”), one of the stranger albums I heard this year. Its musical current flows freely through disparate passages of hushed indie balladry, swaggering, sweaty dad rock, ambient minimalism, exuberant jazz blowing, and classical cello, often within the space of a single track. If you think it sounds overstuffed or ponderous, slap yourself on the wrist for being wrong, and then think again; the album exudes a palpable sense of joy, and the musicians don’t take themselves overly seriously. I mean, there are songs on here called “Hauhauhauhaudibble” and “C-Ch-Cha-Chan-Chang-Change-Changes,” and the former contains a boinging jaw harp, so you know you’ll have fun. Eventually, I suppose I’ll stop being surprised by To Finding Out’s sheer sonic variation, but that day has not yet come.
Dejah Monea – Flowers and Dopamine
21 year-old Dejah Monea announced herself as an exciting voice in Pittsburgh R&B with her May debut, Flowers and Dopamine, a collection of smooth, sultry ballads that would sound right at home in rotation alongside 90’s classics like Brandy and Daydream. Monea’s got a timeless voice and impeccable control; she’s unafraid to run melismatically from breathy lows to an easy falsetto, and sounds just as comfortable going in over a vintage, guitar-tinged slow jam beat (“One Phone Call Away”) as she does dipping into a glassy pool of modern chill ‘n’ b (“One of Those Days”); she even straight-up raps on the coolly biting “Fiji Water.” Monea’s lyrics examine the peaks and valleys of relationships in the internet age (there’s talk of players, ghosting, “body counts,” labels, friends with benefits, etc), as well as the insecurity that arises from the comparison of the self to others on social media, explored most compellingly on the narcotic “Pills Interlude” and waltzing “Love Yourself.” For someone so young, Monea approaches these topics with impressive amounts of self-reflection and self-knowledge, ensuring that Flowers and Dopamine functions as forthright picture of love, blemishes and all.
Alvin Row – kosher
Where experimental producer Alvin Row’s 2019 release, vignettes, squiggled about like a bioluminescent creature in a deep sea, 2020’s Kosher hops a train and takes a ride through a dizzying array of vibrant samples (Alvin estimates that 90% of the sounds are borrowed from another source). Like an Avalanches album that replaces goofy cruise-ship commentary with person-on-the-street interviews and bits of news bulletins, the songs are stuffed with twinkling bells, trilling flutes, and ecstatic rhythms. The percussion samples are especially impressive, with Alvin bending them into jazzy, improvisational shapes on tracks like the frenetic “Waiting for you,” the extended drum roll of “Close to you,” and the malfunctioning video game soundtrack “Harps/Tenderness.” Not everything rollicks, though; the stately drones of “Dancing lights” (accompanied by a rapturous description of a John Cage show) and the cut-and-paste blues ballad “You and I” slow things down and contribute some of that old Alvin melancholy. While different from his previous works, Kosher represented the next, joyful step down Alvin Row’s kaleidoscopic rabbit hole.
Jordan Montgomery – Thank You 4 Ur Purchase But We R Not For $ale
Thirty six years ago, almost to the day, a man named Bernhard Goetz shot four Black teenagers—panhandling for video game money—on a Manhattan subway train, leaving all injured and one paraplegic. Goetz claimed that he had feared for his safety and acted in self defense, but the fact that he shot one of the teens, slumped in a seat after taking one bullet, a second time (allegedly telling him, “You don’t look so bad; here’s another”) rendered his explanation unlikely at best. Nonetheless, Goetz was embraced as a vigilante hero by a public that equated crime with skin color. The event echoes in the mind each time a cop or a Kyle murders someone (often Black), and a chorus of voices responds, with a shrug or a thumbs-up, “They deserved it.” This is the America into which Jordan Montgomery released his June album, Thank You 4 Ur Purchase But We R Not For $ale, whose artwork features a sign reading, “Congratulations! Bernie Goetz wins one for the good guys.” Montgomery is driven on Thank You (no DWB Records pun intended), rhyming ferociously and forcefully about state oppression, runaway gentrification, gun violence, and the predatory nature of corporate capitalism. In these vividly rendered songs, white children mock their Black counterparts for their lips only to inject their own with collagen in order to pursue modeling careers, families are destroyed as collateral damage in the failed War On Drugs, rappers are gassed up and exploited by labels only to be kicked to the curb later, and the mighty dollar tempts all. Despite the grim scenes, space is left for warmth and tenderness on tracks like the celebratory “Queens” and the romantic “RNB,” which feature a who’s-who of Pittsburgh talent (Deej, E.L.B.A., Sierra Sellers, Livefromthecity). Thank You isn’t always an easy listen, but it’s an essential one.
TRVSS – New Distances
New Distances, the July album from noise-punkers TRVSS, is the sound of barely controlled chaos. The band has widened its sonic scope since 2019’s ABSENCE, pulling back the reins on that album’s relentless gallop so that songs have space to draw a few ragged breaths as they stride about. The tempos are a bit slower, and a number of songs follow knotty rhythms and shifting time signatures, introducing a mathy element to the screeching abrasion. These arithmetic leviathans, most notably the stomping “hiss,” the apocalyptic “scale model citizen in a scale model town,” and the creeping “the ventriloquist always has the last laugh,” are anchored by Jake Pellatiro, who rocks one of the grittiest, gnarliest bass tones you’ll hear. Overtop, factory floor guitars clang while frontman Daniel Gene II rages, his voice distorted, like a street prophet pacing the corner as buildings burn and crumble behind him. Noise is catharsis, and New Distances’s clamor was much needed this year.
Merce Lemon – Moonth
Merce Lemon makes her music like a cartographer would map insular realms, weaving together on her August release, Moonth, fantastical images of “burning castles, dragon friends,” irreverent bits of humor (“Everything that happens/Happens on my dick”), and poignant musings (“Loving your someone is not hard to do/And, baby, if you loved me, you’d show me you do”) to create a tapestry of the soul. Sauerkraut stenches, swarming black cats, and chili packet-eating contests compete for space with casket-bound friends and leaves “jumping to their death,” the comic, tragic, profound, and weird becoming one against a backdrop of warm, earthy country-folk. Merce’s guitar and vocals (the tones of which are exquisite) form the glowing hearth around which the rest of her band clusters, like a horde of imaginary friends having a campfire singalong. Most importantly, there’s a dissonant outro (“Horses”) that asks the real questions: “What the fuck are they??/ They’re eating all the hay!!” Moonth will make you laugh, cry, and question your knowledge of horses.
West/Step – Peace Material
Artwork is essential to my experience of albums. When Bloomfield’s Juke Records was still around, I’d spend hours browsing there and end up leaving with armfuls of $2 CDs selected solely because of some colorful design or bizarre image emblazoned on the cover. I don’t think I’m alone on this one; would, say, Sgt. Pepper’s be Sgt. Pepper’s without its menagerie of wax celebrities, or Miseducation Miseducation without Lauryn Hill’s face, etched into wood, staring defiantly over your right shoulder? Similarly, the metallic, gem-like abstraction that adorns Peace Material, the August album by experimentalist West/Step, mirrors the music within perfectly. A rush of blurry synth, percussion, and vocals, it feels like a glitchy EDM church choir refracted through a prism until the sounds explode into Technicolor waves. Strains of blown-out R&B bleed through here and there, most notably on the cavernous “Jan-Michael Vincent,” while propulsive drum programming anchors the billowing clouds of melody on tracks like “M:R” and “Universal First Aid,” preventing them from flying off into space entirely. Opener “SEEDS” and late-album standout “Revere” feel especially exalted, as intergalactic chants mingle with pounding rhythms and pillars of sound that stretch upward toward infinity. Listen to this one in a single dose and find yourself ecstatically lost.
Ky Vöss – Coping Mechanisms
On Part I of “I Existed,” the emotional centerpiece of Ky Vöss’s September release, Coping Mechanisms, they sing, “Can you keep a secret/I wish I existed/I’ve always been dead/Blame it on the bloodshed/Hope to god I forget/I’m a space cadet,” calling poignantly back to their 2019 debut’s title. Where that record was pitch dark, Coping Mechanisms sees a bit of light seep through the visor of Ky Vöss’s space helmet, but the spectres of their past remain, swirling through the air like the reverby vocal echoes deployed liberally on these nine tracks. While the album does contain a few dungeon ravers, the skyscraping synths that power anthemic songs like opener “Thank You, Sorry” and unstoppable album highlight “Masochism” bear more similarity to the starry-eyed sounds found on Porter Robinson’s Worlds than to the spooky ones conjured by Salem or Crystal Castles; “Catch Yourself” even loosely riffs on The Chainsmokers’s “Closer,” albeit replacing shoulder tats, Colorado mattresses, and overpriced Rovers with pocket syringes, lost dignity, stolen bikes, and closet acid. Indeed, despite Coping Mechanism’s buoyant keyboards and whooshing rhythms, its lyrics convey unbearable levels of trauma, anxiety, and pain, conveyed most desperately on closer “Manage,” which ends, according to the lyric sheet, with the plea, “Help me,” repeated 428 times. Coping Mechanisms may gleam a bit brighter than Space Cadet did, but its portrayal of a mind at war with itself is just as haunting.