DIY music isn’t supposed to sound like this. You can tell that Gabrielle Smith’s one-woman band Eskimeaux belongs somewhere in the DIY matrix because there’s an instinctive intimacy to it. The lyrics read like the sort of poetry an incredibly smart and insightful high-school kid might write and then keep to herself forever even though it’s really good and the school literary magazine would’ve been happy to publish it. The songs rarely stick to verse-chorus-verse formula, unfolding on their own time and according to their own logic. It’s the sort of album that, 20 years ago, would’ve been recorded on a four-track, or maybe direct-to-boombox, and tape hiss would’ve rendered maybe a third of the lyrics indecipherable. But for all its bedroom-rock signifiers, O.K. sounds like something put together by a professional producer, in a professional studio, with real label money behind it.
Every sound on O.K. is sharp and crystalline, and Smith’s voice is recorded with care, so that we can catch every dip in her elocution, every slight craggy catch in her delivery. There aren’t a lot of those craggy catches, either. As a singer, she’s smooth and conversational and confident, with that Liz Phair tendency to sound maybe sort of bored even when she’s baring her heart. Smith plays around with keyboards, but the album never has that dinky bloopity-bloop sound that affects so many bedroom-pop projects. And she and producer Jack Greenleaf layer keyboards and guitars and backing vocals with an ear for grandeur, with every sound tweaked just so. Maybe that’s a function of electronic convenience; after all, anyone with a half-decent laptop has access to recording technology that would’ve made ’80s-era Mutt Lange howl with jealousy. But there’s a real commendable bravery in that clarity, too. Plenty of DIY types are content to use tin-can fidelity or gooey reverb as aesthetic shorthand, as signifiers of genre. But Smith isn’t hiding her songs behind anything. She’s giving you that high-school poetry in high definition.
Smith’s whole context is still a little mysterious for those of us not steeped in New York’s DIY scene. She’s been making music under that probably-too-cutesy name since 2007, and she’s part of an artists’ collective called the Epoch, and many of its members sing backup on O.K. Mitski sings backup on a few songs, too, and Smith has lately been playing in Frankie Cosmos’ backing band, though Cosmos is not on the album. So Smith is connected with a few people who are really good at laser-beaming some intense, personal feelings into the hearts of select listeners, and she’s got that same skill, too. But even if Smith comes from a particular community, O.K. still sounds like an intensely personal and particular piece of work, one that’s been honed and perfected. Some of the songs on O.K. first appeared on the Bandcamp release Igluenza almost two years ago; Smith calls that “not a real album but rather a collection of demos.” And if you hear the versions of those songs on that album, they sound a lot closer to what we expect from a DIY artist: scrappy, small, recorded quickly and maybe crudely. Those songs were good in their original form, but Smith has spent two years living with them and shaping them and perfecting them. She’s put together a four-piece band — all people from her Epoch crew — and they’ve figured out how to blow those songs out into something bigger. That, along with the extra care put into recording them, pays off huge.
Lyrically, Smith occupies the same territory as Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield: That awkward life-stage when people have huge feelings to communicate to each other but haven’t figured out how to do it. On “Alone At The Party,” she pretty much spells that idea out: “Sometimes it’s hard to remember you’re my friend / So I talk to you with my songs instead.” It’s easy to imagine that she really is singing that for an audience of one, that the rest of us are just lucky enough to eavesdrop. There’s romantic-relationship stuff here, mostly of the “shit, I shouldn’t have said that, I just ruined everything” variety: “Let’s go walking to the Brooklyn Museum / In the perfect, marbley light I see him / And stupidly I say something mean.” But a ton of the feelings on the album aren’t necessarily about love or crushes; they’re just about people learning to live with each other and with regret: “And everything I said spewed like sparklers from my mouth / They looked pretty as they flew, but now they’re useless and burnt out.” And sometimes, her words are about finding peace: “Open up your hands and accept that this has ended / Nothing in the world is holier than friendship.” Even when the words read clumsy on paper, they gain shape and dimension when she’s singing them. It’s hard to deliver a line like “you waxen wing, you fooling thing” with conviction, but Smith pulls it off. And later in that same song (“The Thunder Answers Back”), Smith and nine of her friends are howling “You coward! You hummingbird!” at some nameless coward/hummingbird, and the force of all their voices together is enough to make you stop wondering what they’re talking about.
In this interview, Smith names both Xiu Xiu and Taylor Swift’s 1989 as inspirations, and you can hear them both at work. Smith may have come up on music that fetishizes sickening noises and radical, intense disclosure, but she’s also found ways to embrace bright, gleaming pop music. She also talks about Tegan And Sara’s Heartthrob as a blueprint, remembering that she told her producer, “We have to make it sound like this; this is the new barometer for what we’re doing.” That album is another embracing-pop move. But the context was different for that one; it came from two music-business veterans who came up making stark, personal guitar music and made a conscious decision to leave it all behind. They had major-label backing and professional producers working for them. Smith is doing similar things, with nearly as much success. But she’s doing it in her bedroom, and she’s keeping the intimacy that comes with making music in your bedroom. That’s not an easy line to walk, but on O.K., she dances beautifully between worlds.
O.K. is out now on Double Double Whammy. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Tallest Man On Earth’s barn-recorded folk ramble Dark Bird Is Home.
• Elvis Depressedly’s warm, expressive full-length DIY-pop debut New Alhambra.
• The Weather Station’s lovely, nimble acoustic album Loyalty.
• Prurient’s double-LP noise monument Frozen Niagara Falls.
• Wavves side project Spirit Club’s woozy self-titled debut.
• The National/Menomena side project Pfarmers’ debut Gunnera.
• Tyondai Braxton’s solo installation-music experiment HIVE1.
• King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard’s garage-psych bugout Quarters.
• Fuck Buttons side project Blanck Mass’ seething noise-drone Dead Format.
• Prefuse 73’s complex, guest-heavy sigh Rivington Não Rio.
• NEEDS’ self-aware self-titled hardcore debut.
• The Holydrug Couple’s psychedelic meditation Moonlust.
• Icky Blossoms’ electro-pop sophomore effort Mask.
• Snoop Dogg’s Pharrell-produced comeback attempt Bush.
• Neurosis co-leader Steve Von Till’s acoustic solo album A Life Unto Itself.
• Surfer Blood’s home-recorded 1000 Palms.
• Novella’s meditative shoegazer Land.
• Abram Shook’s fluttering experimental popper Landscape Dream.
• Barbossa’s string-laden singer-songwriter album Imager.
• Grounders’ chilled-out self-titled indie rock debut.
• MV + EE member Matt Valentine’s solo LP Midden Mound.
• Ministry member Chris Connelly’s solo album Decibels From Heart.
• Obsequiae’s medieval metal incantation Aria Of Vernal Tombs.
• Arcturus’ avant-garde metal ripper Arcturian.
• Crocodiles’ dependable noise-popper Boys.
• Paul Weller’s durable rocker Saturns Pattern.
• Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s rootsy collaboration The Traveling Kind.
• David Duchovny’s long-awaited debut album Hell Or Highwater.
• Ben Khan’s 1000 EP.
• Vomitface’s Another Bad Year EP.
• Bishop Nehru’s The Nehruvian EP.
• Public Access T.V.’s Public Access EP.
• Jordan Bratton’s YOUTH EP.
• Flyying Colours’ ROYGBIV EP.
• Keljet’s Transatlantic EP.