Courtship Ritual - Pith

I might as well get some boring full-disclosure stuff out of the way first: Nick Sylvester, a great friend and former colleague of mine, produced this album, and he’s putting it out on Godmode, his label. The fact that Nick worked on this album has a lot to do with the fact that I listened to it in the first place, but it has nothing to do with Pith appearing in this column this week. And maybe I should get used to writing paragraphs like this one, because with the direction Godmode has been going lately, this probably won’t be the last time an album on that label lands an Album Of The Week distinction. Nick is a former rock critic, maybe the best of his generation. He doesn’t really write anymore, for reasons too calamitous and goofy to get into here. So instead, he’s directed his critical ear toward the task of actually putting out music. If you listen to Common Interests Were Not Enough To Keep Us Together, the label compilation he released earlier this year, you’ll hear hard-scraping postpunk, psychedelic noise, and dizzy synthpop. Shamir, a 19-year-old singer from Las Vegas, has built a name by wailing chiffon, exultant disco-house, and he was on that compilation. So were Courtship Ritual, a Brooklyn duo whose two members play in Shamir’s backing band and who, on their own, have crafted a spare, haunting, rhythmically focused form of indie-pop that’s capable of pushing in a ton of different directions. Pith is their first album, and you need it in your life — not because my friend put it out, but because it’s great.

Courtship Ritual’s sound is intimate and stripped-down and insinuating, to the point where I think the most obvious reference point is the xx. But even if the band is working from similar elements — electronic beats, hushed vocals, warmly dubby basslines — they’re deploying those elements differently. Singer Monica Salazar has a little bit of acid in her voice, a clipped full-throated alto with just a hint of sneer to it. She never whispers or sighs, and she always sounds tough. The lyrics haven’t left a deep impression on me yet, but they’re elusive and evocative; the first one that comes to mind is “you’re a handsome beast just like your mother.” I don’t know whether Salazar or her bandmate Jared Olmsted is responsible for the band’s basslines, but those basslines have some real muscle to them. Pith was available as a limited-edition cassette before it was a readily available download, but it’s the rare album from the cassette underground that I’d describe as being accessible and pleasant. You could use these songs to sell cars, and you could pipe them into a clothing boutique without disturbing the atmosphere. But even at their calmest and lightest, there’s a fundamental intensity to these songs, and that’s a big part of the reasons they stand out so starkly.

And one of the most impressive things about the album is the way that the group does all these different things with what sounds like a simple, elemental sound. Opener “Yellow Spiders” is spacey, druidic R&B. “Wild Like Us” is a fond, starry-eyed new-wave ballad, a total heart-melter that could soundtrack a slow-dance scene in a John Hughes movie. “Kingdom Of Beauty” is rubbery postpunk, a Slits or Delta 5 song with soft-glinting synths instead of scratchy guitars. “Champagne Cages” and “Umbrellas In The Sun” both veer weirdly close to being sparkly, effervescent folk music; they remind me of the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” or something. And the album ends with “Six Foot Summer,” a full-on hands-in-the-air old-school Chicago house floor-filler, the type of track that Courtship Ritual’s two members play when they’re backing up Shamir. “Rats swarming in the street, it must be summer again,” Salazar sings, with a matter-of-fact blankness that reminds me of Suzanne Vega on the “Tom’s Diner” remix, as synths stab and guitars skitter and the drums stay locked in a fearsom four-on-the-floor stomp. “Six Foot Summer” is a total monster of a song, the sort of song that a band could base its entire sound on. But Courtship Ritual never return to it. They’ve got too many worlds left to explore.

For all the different ways Courtship Ritual use their sound, though, that sound remains the same: An evocative, still, confident combination of voice and bass and synth, one that never leaves anything extraneous in the mix or rushes its tempo. The duo sound nothing like Spoon, but they have that same sense of restraint, that ability to keep things on a slow simmer at all times. It helps that the band has included all these short interstitial instrumentals that help ease the transitions and hold the album together. Really, it’s remarkable; the band visits all these varied landscapes, but they do it without disrupting the atmosphere they conjure, and the whole album is over in less than half an hour. This is an album you can use; one that’ll fit the mood perfectly when you’re reading and drinking wine by yourself in your apartment late at night, or when you’re eating dinner with somebody, or washing dishes. But it’s also a sharp and restless piece of art, an album that refuses to stay in one place. So yes, it’s true that a friend of mine helped put this album into the world. That doesn’t mean I’m practicing any kind of cronyism when I tell you that you should hear this album, though. It means I have good taste in friends.

Pith is out now on Godmode. Stream it below.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Joyce Manor’s sharp, pummeling pop-punker Never Hungover Again.
• Martyrdöd’s triumphant crust-metal blowout Elddop.
• Common’s politically inclined, No I.D.-produced Nobody’s Smiling.
• White Fence’s wiggy psychedelic goof For The Recently Found Innocent.
• Dikembe’s melodic post-hardcore rockout Mediumship.
• Field Mouse’s emotive, reverby Hold Still Life.
• PS I Love You’s bleary rocker For Those Who Stay.
• The former Gene Ween’s self-titled debut as FREEMAN.
• Former Titus Andronicus member Liam Betson’s lo-fi solo effort The Cover Of Hunter.
• Trail Of Dead side project Midnight Masses’ hazy, distorted Departures.
• Monomyth’s punchy indie rocker Saturnalia Regalia!
• The Hyperdub label’s Hyperdub 10.2 compilation.
• Majid Jordan’s A Place Like This EP.
• Bleached’s For The Feel EP.
• Suno Deko’s Thrown Color EP.

Comments (20)
  1. Digging this album – a solid listen, and I’m enjoying the new wave / synth influences, as well as the “spacey R&B” you all mentioned above.

    You all didn’t mention it above, but this week overall, I was surprised how much I liked the Alvvays record – I thought it’d be a safe, repetitive indie pop record, but turned out to be much more of a solidly-written indie homage record than I’d anticipated. Lots of late 80s / early 90s influences.

    • Came here to say that as well. The Alvvays record is pretty damn great.

      • Seriously!!!! That Alvvays album is amazing. That kind of Camera Obscura meets Best Coast completely devastates me.

        This is the EXACT kind of thing I was talking about in an earlier rant….this is perfect POP music. And it’s a shame the only people that will listen to this are us indie types. And that really, really sucks. Cuz this band should be selling a zillion albums and dominate the Billboard chart.

        Remember sports fans….in an alternate universe where beauty and art are celebrated and trite and stupid are reviled Queen Lykke Li sits atop her glittering throne.

  2. I just listened to it. I wasn’t so sure I would be into the brief length, but it is pretty fitting. Those basslines are so catchy, but subdued at the same time.

    Thanks for introducing me to this.

  3. Oh Stereogum, why must you alvvays let me down? :(

  4. No mention of La Roux?

  5. Actually Tom, if your friend keeps helping put out music like this, you’ll have to stop with the disclaimer lest it become a humblebrag.

    Dang this is good.

  6. Does anyone want to discuss Merchandise’s After The End? Leaked last week (albeit without the title track), and it’s been on repeat for me ever since. It’s shown to have a lot in common (for me, at least) with Lost In The Dream–bangers on the first and second halves of the albums separated by longer, denser songs that take many lessons to unfurl. And, like Lost In The Dream, it is already contending to be my AOTY.

  7. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this album, but man the new Alvvays record is just such a blast there’s no way it isn’t my AotW. It’s certainly just a indie pop record, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in beautiful, warm melodies and catchy riffs. Great for summer nights spent driving.

  8. Martyrdod is exactly what I need right now. This will tide me over until From Ashes Rise and/or Disfear get around to putting out something new.

  9. If I wasn’t such a big White Fence fan I’d be inclined to agree with this pick because it really does set the mood really well and those bass lines are funky as hell. But I have to give credit to my man Presley for taking the next step into a more polished sound courtesy of the great Ty Segall. The album is my personal favorite in the catalog and a nice mellow transition from that kick ass new Joyce Manor album which is also been on repeat constantly today (benefits of it being under the half hour mark). But yeah man Presley does his thing better with every record and he’s a very talented song smith who I hope realizes that Segall and him were made for each other

  10. I really love that Alvvays album. But this is the hot ticket as well. Great basslines and great vocals.

    Thanks for this one. And will check out that Mercandise record as well. I’m trying to guess how much Stereogum costs me a month due to things I find on here. Prolly about $50.00 on average.

  11. I was bored last night and bought this album having not read this write-up or any of the comments; all I knew was that I’d never heard of Courtship Ritual before and that the cover art was dope.

    But damn if I didn’t fall in love with this album! My biggest complaint is that it ends so quickly. Her vocal reminds me a lot of Goldfrapp, which I don’t find an unfitting comparison: both bands *love* switching between get-up-and-go and chill-the-fuck-out at the flip of a coin. But the production here is meatier than anything Goldfrapp has done in ages. (No shade, I say this as a sincere Goldfrapp fan.) “Abuela” floored me, utterly, like she was reading a monologue of my thoughts since this weekend (no joke). They spend the whole album building to the monstrous jam of “Six Foot Summer” and it’s the most gratifying closer of any album I’ve heard this summer. The instrumentals seem logical rather than distracting (I particularly love the psychedelic flourishes of “Weirdo Guitar”). The production is just so easy to lose yourself in, too.

    Best album I’ve bought on a whim, in a while, anyway. Thanks for the recommendation, ‘Gum :D

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