Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Courtship Ritual Pith

By Tom Breihan / July 22, 2014 - 3:52 pm

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.