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Review: She Talks Silence’s Some Small Gifts

Some Small Gifts came out back in the early days of summer, when temperatures rest at their most comfortable and ice cream seemed like a wise daily purchase post work. Now my walk home features leaves caught between yellow and red, and stops at convenience stores where they’ve already set up Christmas aisles next to ones full of heavy-duty gloves. During this stretch, Some Small Gifts hasn’t so much as soundtracked my life as it has haunted the back corners of my mind.

Which is a drawn out way of saying…this mini-album dropped four months ago and I still haven’t gotten around to writing a review of it. I certainly meant to, as few releases in 2011 had me as excited as Gifts. It is She Talks Silence’s follow-up to last year’s Noise & Novels, my favorite Japanese album of 2010 and one holding up well all these months on. That debut showed the young Tokyo artist’s knack for writing catchy indie-pop and then having the guts to turn it vaguely creepy…not “creepy” in a “that guy has been pacing outside of the Stater Brother’s for two hours now” but rather like the hours before a typhoon hits, the calm temperament and grey sky hinting at something not fun on the horizon.

So I eagerly awaited Gifts, but then life intervened. A month before She Talks Silence’s (STS from here on out) newest dropped, I had a nice kindergarten teaching job lined up in the lovely little city I called home for two years. When the CD actually showed up to my apartment in its brown Amazon coat, I was frantically searching for jobs in nearby Osaka, my plans torn up like oh so many failed MegaBucks scratchers. I listened to Gifts for sure, but couldn’t immerse myself in it or be excited by it the way I wanted. I didn’t have time to be excited by anything, save sleep.

Job hunting turned to apartment hunting turned to moving turned to settling in turned to a strange state of being confused by my new settings to finally normalcy. Gifts creeped in the corners during this time, battling it out with countless other records…and books and alcoholic beverages…for my time. It felt wrong to write a half-assed review of this back then, so now, with winter crispness materializing in the air and year-end lists dancing in my mind, I decided to pen this review.

Yet here’s the twist – the music on Some Small Gifts is pretty good, but very unsurprising. It isn’t quite the typical stop-gap EP a band puts out following an artistic breakthrough, but it’s also the sort of release that could probably summed up with the sentence “did you like the last album You’ll like this!” There are a few developments – STS has grown into a duo (trio live) and Gifts sounds clearer than the bedroom-hush of Noise & Novels. Opener “Not Hearing” is a four-minute instrumental with drums ripped straight from a pagan sacrifice. “Bedflower” teases hip-hop-inspired percussion, but uses them for the softest song STS has ever written. Then, a three-song stretch of STS being STS, the album ending with “Some Small Gift” which…well, we will get to that. Initial verdict – good! But nothing that special.

This revelation made writing anything even harder – had I sat down and forced myself to churn something up in August it would have said practically the same as the above paragraph but with more drawn-out language. I decided instead to let Gifts gestate, see what new thoughts crept into my mind.

So I went on with my life – and STS’ latest hovered around me like a cartoon cloud. From a critical perspective, I thought I had a closed case. Yet soon this album turned into a strange beast – it’s ended up one of the records in 2011 to really stick with me personally.

Now, beloved reader who stuck around 600 words, I reveal the sticky center of this post – this is review powered by emotion, a particularly dangerous zone for music writing to go, yet one I think is important for this record. On the actual music, you might as well just read this. But STS summons a very different atmosphere from their debut – Noise & Novels felt lonely, isolated but ultimately hopeful. Gifts feels like that stray thought in your head that, even when in stupid bliss, whispers “things are going to get bad again.” It’s ominous, paranoid stuff perfectly capable of rolling out of bed but concealing shaky feelings.

I’ve been listening to Gifts on loop recently because I get that feeling, I feel that feeling more and more. All the scene-setting stuff at the top was standard melodrama, emotions that felt like apocalypse at the time but like all hysterics faded with time. Gifts couldn’t connect with me during that period because it sounds reserved, rarely letting emotion overpower the songs. This isn’t what someone who comes seconds away from irrationally buying a one-way plane ticket home wants to hear – they want to hear something raw, dripping with vulnerable feelings, preferably with shouting. I listened to a lot of Future Islands.

Yet those sudden trips to Expedia soon stopped, and all my bad feeling receded and life returned to normal, albeit in a new place with a new job and new people surrounding me. And that’s when Gifts sunk into me and resonated personally more than most albums released in 2011. “Not Hearing” sets the tone, DIY war-drum pounding sweeping over as guitar…guitar sometimes settling into a groove reminiscent of the Space Ghost Coast To Coast theme…blows around like debris. It says something wicked this way comes, the sound of bad weather or just ominous omens fast approaching. It’s the feeling I get when I get lost in Facebook stalking old college friends or get an e-mail from my mom about a job – it’s far off, but visible, and getting bigger each second.

(Seeing as this is lines away from turning into a chronological review, let’s get “Bedflower” out of the way and slap it with the “only misfire of the album” sticker. The beats and general languid atmosphere are new for STS, but ultimately a bit too comfortable for the group. If most of their songs remind me of having trouble sleeping and noticing the dots on your ceiling look like faces, “Bedflower” is being comfortably spread out on a king-size bed reading the New Yorker.)

Then we come to Gifts innards, the three-song stretch where STS sounds like STS albeit in a slightly more unsettling way. One fact easy to forget about this duo is they make indie-pop, one of the most common genres around, especially in the Internet age. They played at a recent Creation Record’s event in Tokyo, and the bulk of songs like “Vanished Vacances” and “Dead Romance” follow a relatively uncomplicated road and sound pretty catchy. Yet, like Black Tambourine before them, STS invert a style often labeled “twee” and associated with cardigans, and turns a often-though-of-innocent genre into something a bit more sinister. See how the otherwise happy, wood-block-clanking “Vanished Vacances” suddeny goes out of focus near the end and turns into a trip. Or how guitar freakouts just rip through “Dead Romance.” The sparse “Fragment” comes closest to being a just-regular indie-pop song, but even that one feels dangerously close to teetering off into a pit at times.

STS taps into the same something-here-isn’t-right vibe mastered by director David Lynch, a fact apparent all across Noise & Novels and just as clear here. Lynch’s works have impacted the band members in a pretty clear way, seeing as lead singer Minami Yamaguchi fancies herself similar to Agent Cooper and keyboardist Ami Kawai scrawled “firewalk with me” on her equipment. Being a “Lynchian” musician at the moment seems pretty trendy – hell, DAVID LYNCH just released a Lynchian album – but STS, and especially Gifts, nails it in a way a lot of other acts don’t. Those groups sound like they belong in one of his movies – STS gets his creepy aesthetic down right.

After spending 15-some minutes hinting at some obscured crisis, STS let those creeping feelings engulf them on closer “Some Small Gift,” the best song they’ve written to date. Whereas Noise & Novels capped off a rather agoraphobic LP with dashes of sunlight, Gifts ends with being submerged by, what to me, sounds like insecurities. The “chorus” of this song is a sudden burst of energy and unintelligible moans caught in the blast. STS sounds defeated and tired on the verses, and so they let the bad thoughts swarm over, at least for one song.

Part of the reason I think Gifts didn’t instantly click was its release time – this isn’t a summer album, but rather one more suitable for the late fall. As I attempt to figure out these last paragraphs, a minor chill has graced the air and the sky has taken on a grey hue, a color STS loves to use in their album art. To me, this sort of weather indicates SOMETHING is coming – the head-slapping answer being “winter,” yes, but also some weird chill in my bones that seems irrational enough it should be brushed away…yet stays tucked just out of sight anyways. Gifts strikes me as the sonic equivalent of that feeling.

I’m not letting emotions allow me to overrate this album…this isn’t a top 10 release of the year, more of a 19 or low-20s for the list obsessed…yet Gifts sticks with me, which is why I think personal details go a long way in explaining why. In Japanese music this year, a lot of artists have been making (intentional or not, I don’t know) music that reflects the scrambled world we live in – Miila And The Geeks captured complete confusion, HNC hit upon some dreamy fear on her “I Dream I Dead” while Canopies And Drapes escaped from it all into a gleaming fantasyland. STS caught the weird feeling of nagging gloom, and even if I can’t say exactly why I think they caught it perfectly.

This post was partially inspired by recent gorgeous music writing by Yvynl and Chet Betz, as well as David Greenwald’s post about what music blogs should be doing today.