Snail Mail singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Lindsey Jordan has made a large splash while still a teenager, but she began playing classical guitar at age five while growing up in Baltimore. Essentially working as a one-woman band, she released an EP when she was 16 two years ago. It drew a great deal of attention, and last year she signed with Matador Records, deciding to pursue a career in music rather than going to college. Snail Mail is now a full-fledged band, with the addition of touring musicians Alex Bass on bass and drummer Ray Brown.
Jordan is openly lesbian, but she has said she dislikes people focusing on her gender and sexuality instead of her music. The title of “Lush” comes close to living up to its sound. Despite the fact that Snail Mail are just a trio, the production is surprisingly full. Her guitar-playing mixes a variety of tones, from clean and distortion-free to bursts of noise. The band doesn’t venture beyond indie rock, but their inspirations seem to range from Sonic Youth’s most melodic moments to Liz Phair’s first three albums (Jordan used to play in a Phair cover band and recently sat down for a conversation with the Chicago singer/ songwriter published on the website Pitchfork) to Waxahatchee.
Jordan’s voice often sounds rather blank and deadpan. She sings about emotional material while putting her heart on her sleeve only when she chooses, although she’s perfectly capable of expressing passion. Often, the song dynamics and the layers of guitars express her feelings more than her vocals. Snail Mail’s debut EP was fairly barebones.
Although Jordan is still the group’s only guitarist, she has learned a lot about using the studio as an instrument on “Lush” rather than just trying to simulate a live performance or flatly record a song. (Of course, she undoubtedly had a bigger recording budget for this album.) The guitar sounds here are carefully varied, with her choice of more aggressive tones and unusual rhythms planned for maximum impact. “Deep Sea” brings a melancholy French horn into the mix. Snail Mail’s songs are getting longer: while no one would mistake them for prog-rock epics, half the album’s tracks clock in around the five-minute mark.
When Snail Mail’s first EP was released, Jordan was still in the closet and her love songs were directed toward a gender-ambiguous “you.” She has changed that: “Pristine” is explicitly about a woman. Still, her desire not to be forced into a niche because she’s a lesbian is evident here as well.
The album’s second single, “Heat Wave,” is its most remarkable song. Its guitar sound evokes “Daydream Nation”-era Sonic Youth, mixing aggression with a tuneful quality. Its video is also quite memorable. It cuts back and forth between Jordan playing guitar and her in the midst of a hockey game. She gets surrounded and crushed by men, then forced into the penalty box. But eventually she triumphs, racing around the rink with command of the puck and getting a quasi-mystical command over a glowing puck. Any connections to a male-dominated music scene are purely coincidental, of course.
“Lush” closes with the ballad “Anytime,” which consists of Jordan accompanying herself on solo electric guitar with more guitars overdubbed around the two-minute mark and airy electronics near the very end. She asks her partner, “Are you hung up, or do you love me?,” and says, “In the end, you could waste your whole life anyways/ I want better for you.” It’s a song about trying to let go of one’s lover gently, which rarely goes well.
“Lush” documents a band that’s still in the process of getting its act together. Apart from “Heat Wave,” which is one of 2018’s best rock songs, their music sounds good while I’m listening to it, but has little staying power. Snail Mail’s sound has a certain intensity while playing their album, but it fades instantly; Jordan’s songwriting eschews hooks and isn’t particularly memorable. Her command of the guitar can’t be denied, but there’s still a certain familiarity to “Lush.”
2018 is a year where the sounds of ‘90s indie rock have returned, and Snail Mail fit into that trend, even if Jordan has cited folk music and slowcore bands like Low as influences on her current direction. “Lush” seems like the second step on a path that will one day lead to a major album, but the band isn’t there yet.
The “Heat Wave” video is at youtube.com/watch?v=-d91Qn8QUks.
SNAIL MAIL | “Lush” | Matador Records | Jun. 8 release | store.mata
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