If you can appreciate the wit and whimsy that inspires a barely-scraping-by solo musician to name their project Illuminati Hotties, you will also probably dig that project’s debut album. Only halfway through her twenties, LA-based Sarah Tudzin has gotten as good at writing songs as she is naming bands and, not coincidentally, titling albums. Her new one Kiss Yr Frenemies (see what I mean?) marks the arrival of an unmistakable creative voice in indie rock.
OK, you might mistake that voice at first. Illuminati Hotties songs come in many sizes, shapes, and styles, with enough variation that they might not always register as the work of the same band if experienced in the wild. The lead-up to Kiss Yr Frenemies demonstrated as much: Lead single “(You’re Better) Than Ever,” which my colleague James Rettig wisely dubbed “a surf-pop shredder by way of Courtney Barnett,” was followed by “Cuff,” an ambient simmer that boils over into thunderous distortion bombs. Then came “Paying Off The Happiness,” a jaunty new wave/power-pop track with a title nodding to Bright Eyes. Kiss Yr Frenemies also has interlude-length vignettes that call back to ’60s girl-group pop (the opening title track) and invite you to a howling acoustic house-show sing-along (“boi”).
In the context of the album, this all coheres into something of a signature sound, multi-faceted though it may be. Across the board Tudzin’s tunes overflow with tiny flourishes and grand gestures, disciplined and concise yet beaming with the excitement that comes from taking leaps and tapping into your potential. She returns to some of her established modes once or twice, so that Kiss Yr Frenemies ends up toggling between darkly meditative slow-burns and brightly chiming pop-rockers ever so slightly tinged by retro elements. Consider these templates the night and day of Illuminati Hotties — and as in Genesis, the creator can look upon her creation and declare it good.
The versatility and sense of wonder remind me of Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People in a way, but Kiss Yr Frenemies is a more compact vehicle for a single person’s vision. This is a strange thing to say about an album half composed of ballads, but the best descriptor for Kiss Yr Frenemies is probably fun. It’s homespun and down-to-Earth even in most of its flashiest moments, like the lead guitar that comes bursting into the frame twice on “Shape Of My Hands” or the brass-inflected bombardment that closes out “For Cheez (My Friend, Not The Food).” Speaking of which, the moodiest, most epic composition here is called “For Cheez (My Friend, Not The Food).” There is room on her album for somber atmospherics and fart noises alike.
If the music is vibrant and charming, the lyrics are what push Illuminati Hotties over the top. Tudzin lends credence to the idea of the songwriter as a teller of short stories. Her words are the connective thread that ties her material together, all of it animated by her frank, self-deprecating, ultimately optimistic outlook on twenty-something foibles. She gives you scenes of heartbreak, of flirtation, of tender love both romantic and platonic, of social missteps and interpersonal friction and loneliness and confusion. She does this all with the warmth and approachability of a romantic comedy. Again and again, she finds a way to be sarcastic without sounding bitter and vulnerable without sounding insufferable. She is the kind of narrator you want to spend time with because you so identify with her humanity — and because kicking it with her sounds like a blast.
Consider “(You’re Better) Than Ever,” on which Tudzin wretches at the news that her ex is thriving while she struggles to get it together. As the beat goes bopping along, she sings, “All my favorite socks are getting holes in them/ All my favorite people got a load on them/ But I heard/ That you feel better/ Better than ever than ever.” Later: “All my jeans and hoodies smell like Parliaments/ All I wanna do is skate back to your bed.” Still later: “All the things I used to do are boring now/ All the baddest words I knew came pouring out.” It’s constructed with the parallelism of a poem, so it only makes sense that its refrain is so poetic: “It’s not to say that I’m unfortunate/ Or that I haven’t been succeeding/ But I’m a hushed and quiet resonance/ When I wanted to be screaming.”
Song after song comes loaded with lyrics that evocative. On “Paying Off The Happiness,” self-described “emotional debt” leads to actual debt when a cash-strapped Tudzin tries to atone for an awkward moment at the bar by buying a round of Stella and cognac for friends of friends. “Shape Of My Hands” hilariously depicts a short-lived fling: “Singing Conor’s songs at 4 in the morning/ While you were online shopping/ You said you need a better mattress/ I said I’m not staying long enough to see that.” On “Cuff” she communicates steely determination and loving support via little details like cuffed sleeves, gritted teeth, and a kiss on the cheek. On “Pressed 2 Death,” the one with the fart noise, she uses a different sound effect to stunt on a guy who only likes her when she’s sad: “I wrote a song on your guitar and it sounds like [heroic guitar solo] / You wrote a song on my guitar and it sounds like shit.”
It’s almost certainly true that Tudzin writes better songs than that loser. She’s writing better songs than just about anybody going right now, especially for someone just edging her way into adulthood. Kiss Yr Frenemies is a stellar introduction to her world, one that makes me want to keep following her story for years to come, until she’s old enough that a band name like Illuminati Hotties will seem even more gleefully absurd.
Kiss Yr Frenemies is out 5/11 on Tiny Engines. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
- Arctic Monkeys’ suave and lounge-y return Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
- Beach House’s spectacular waking dream 7.
- Mark Kozelek’s characteristically rambling and mundane self-titled LP.
- Charlie Puth’s synthetic soul-man move Voicenotes.
- Jess Williamson’s Jungian folk-rocker Cosmic Wink.
- The Sea And Cake’s jazzy pop-rocker Any Day.
- The Body’s noise-rock detonation I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer.
- Simian Mobile Disco’s chorally infused techno pursuit Murmurations.
- Slow Mass’ impressive post-hardcore power ballad collection On Watch.
- worlds greatest dad’s hooky and emotion-charged get well soon.
- SSION’s guest-heavy reality-bender O.
- Hit Bargain’s ferocious art-punk offering Potential Maximizer.
- Yours Are The Only Ears’ intimate indie-pop exercise Knock Hard.
- Boys’ melancholy shimmer Rest In Peace.
- Bent Denim’s bleary and meditative Town And Country.
- The Magic Numbers’ willfully untrendy Outsiders.
- Joanna Gruesome offshoot Ex-Vöid’s aggressively catchy debut EP.