The artwork on the cover is the sort of chintzy, cut-and-paste collage you see hanging inconspicuously in hotel rooms.
That is not what the music sounds like.
Stems’ latest album, Your Sullen Ways Are Getting Boring, deserves way more hype than the meager number of plays it has racked up on the band’s Soundcloud. This is well-crafted, guitar-based indie rock in the vein of bands on the Captured Tracks label such as Wild Nothing, Craft Spells and Beach Fossils.
“Good Times” opens the record with a highly danceable, uptempo drum and bass combo with an underlying moody guitar melody. This is a formula similar to many songs on the Shocking Pinks’ Dance the Dance Electric album, but with thicker production gloss and lyrics a touch less emo. Halfway through, the tempo slows and the instruments quiet down, allowing an array of sparse guitar and keyboard melodies to create a more spacious soundscape. The result is gorgeous.
“Lights Out” is surf rock for a murky day at the beach, the sun occasionally peeking through the clouds. “Werewolves” is an affecting exercise in restraint (though the lyrics seem to depict personal problems completely unrelated to the experience of transforming into a flesh-chomping monster under a full moon). The guitar in “Centuries Ago” warbles and melts as soon as it bursts from the speakers. Instead of a chorus, the guitar and keyboards mesh with a spark of dissonance, a sound the indie-darling band Deerhunter has perfected over the years. It is executed just as beautifully here.
The radio hit is “Feet in the Fire.” The chorus is the kind of catchy you’d swear you’ve heard before sound, but it still sounds fresh, complete with “Woah, Woah, Oh-Ohs” and keyboard runs. It’s hard to not hit “replay” over and over and disrupt the full-album listening experience.
The penultimate song, “Easily Lost,” may be the record’s most heartfelt. It sounds like every member of the band sings at least one line, and the variation from voice to voice – some smooth, some gravelly – is an amusing late-album change-up. The song rolls with a nautical theme and lyrics that might come off a bit contrived if read out of context (“I remember every wave has a name / I can tell you they all crash the same / If I could learn to swim, we’ll be okay / If not, get used to being carried away”) crash effectively within the song.
The album closes in repose with “Boom and Sparkle,” which sounds more like the dying glimmer of an abandoned bonfire.
Stems are good at what they do, and the abundance of successful bands making similar music proves that their sound is commercially viable. Now they just have to find a way to reach their target listeners.
Catch Stems at our last Live at Lock 4 on Thursday, September 27 at 6pm.
Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio who is currently enrolled in the NEOMFA program for creative writing.