Alternative rock group Honey (consisting of Joe Praksti on guitar and lead vocals, Pat O’Toole on bass, and Evan Meindl on drums) has been making big waves in the Pittsburgh music scene lately—and for good reason. Their frantic, powerful sound and staggering live energy are reminders that the spirit of rock n’ roll is very much alive and well. Originally hailing from Monroeville, the trio has opened for White Reaper; performed in an evening slot on the Main Stage at this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival; and been signed to Wild Kindness, a local offshoot of powerhouse indie label Misra Records. Now, they’re gearing up to celebrate yet another accomplishment: the release of their debut full-length record, Mock Pop, which drops everywhere on Friday, June 30th. A release show in the lower level of Spirit that same night will commemorate the occasion.
It’s certainly something to be proud of. Mock Pop amazed me with both its raw passion and its sharp musicianship. You can see its sonic roots and time-tested rock influences, but these songs are injected with Honey’s own brand of intense creative energy—in turns manic, melancholy, and somewhere in between. The lyrics frequently explore pained, emotional territory: the struggles of growing up and dealing with an increasingly bleak, cruel, and uncaring world. In this sense, it’s a young album. But don’t confuse that with naivete. It requires skill to take something rough and energetic and full of hurt and turn it into something cohesive and streamlined and comprehensible, while maintaining the rawness that’s essential to its power. Honey has done exactly that with Mock Pop. Its careful construction and attention to flow do nothing to detract from its striking, ragged vulnerability; in fact, they enhance it.
This balancing act is evident in various ways. The album contains youthful angst and thoughtful reflection; searing guitar riffs and spacey interludes; desperate death wishes and confessions of love; thrashing punk numbers and extended experimental rides. Praksti’s vocals fall somewhere in the middle of James Mercer of The Shins and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, but with a little more grit than either one, plus a tone between lackadaisical and forceful that screams “rock star.” His guitar chops live up to that label too: frequently buzzing, occasionally dreamy, and always with a keen sense of when to pull back and when to go the hell off. Meindl’s drumming, too, is essential to the band’s powerhouse sound, in turns ferocious and stabilizing. And O’Toole’s impressive bass playing provides appealing undertones that never fail to pull you through. That this much consistently good sound comes out of three people is remarkable.
There’s a line in the eighth track, “Mallrat’s Daydream,” in which Praksti sings, “Confess your sins inside of your rock band.” That’s precisely what Honey seems to be doing with Mock Pop, and their honesty is refreshing. This release is the rocking, angsty, kick-in-the-pants record you didn’t know you needed—but you absolutely do.
From the carnivalesque melody and buzzy, squealing guitar that brings us into the first song (a straight-up rocker called “Drag Dealer”), to the winding, effect-heavy, fittingly chaotic and drawn-out ending of the eight-minute closer, “Leapt Into My Mind,” this album takes you on a charged, compelling ride. The manic punk energy of the curiously-named second track, “Jeff’s Bad Breath,” makes it a personal favorite. Full-throttle drumming from Meindl and the recurring melodic riff of descending half-steps in a rapid-fire downward spiral will definitely make you want to jump around and bang your head. Effect-heavy vocals and frenzied guitar strums complete this frantic puzzle. If you find yourself in need of an ass-kicking or a wakeup call in musical form, this song is for you.
We calm down a bit with “Send Me No Flowers,” a midtempo number that wraps ostensibly bleak lyrics in catchy, upbeat packaging. Some examples: “Once in a while, I get woken up/by the sound of my skeletons under the rug/I try to ignore them, say it’s just a phase/But out of the arguments, I still see their faces,” and “Listen to this, and/give it to that/Death’s got a place for me, right on its lap/With the passage of time/my life’s on the line/Death is tryin’ real hard to be mine.” Frequent repetition of melodic lines, both instrumental and vocal, make this their (gritty rock) version of a pop song. And I can’t not mention this tongue-in-cheek line: “I use my habits to bring me bliss/Each cigarette is like blowing a kiss.”
Their knack for flow comes through here. Honey hits you with high energy in the first two tracks, evoking a sort of desperation of having something to say—followed by a slowdown, while they think about exactly what that ‘something’ is.
The album takes a cool, decisive turn in the subdued and (appropriately) spacey, 6.5-minute-long “Trip to the Moon.” The guitar adapts a more ethereal tone here, and the overall sonic approach is more contemplative and measured than we’ve heard so far, demonstrating the band’s versatility. Its lyrics address the sense of isolation after losing a good relationship: “That was just so far away/My thoughts have all just turned to gray at once/Said that everything would be okay/but I’m floating out here in outer spaaace…” Combined with the vibing, extended instrumentals, and Praksti’s vocals sometimes sounding increasingly distant (as if he were physically floating away), the thematic consistency is impressive.
“Simple Songs” is another case of well-executed contrasts. The straightforward, midtempo instruments and the frequently recurring refrain, “I write simple songs,” bely the difficult, vulnerable, and complex topics the speaker is actually addressing. Among them: drug abuse (“Don’t tell my sister that I’ve been out sniffin’ glue”); transitional angst (“I can’t decide/if I should love myself or hate everything in sight”); and suicidal ideation (“I lie in my bed/and rock myself to sleep, with the sound of/voices in my head/sometimes I swear I feel like I’m, dead/like I’m, dead…”) The sudden shift into a lower, rawer sound at the end sonically demonstrates the true darkness of the speaker’s feelings.
The under-two-minute-long “Interlude” is exactly that: a strange, spacey break exactly halfway through the record. Repeated cymbal taps dance on top of held-out distorted guitars, which provide a vibrating sonic backdrop for the other subtle moving parts. It’s a bit unsettling but mostly pretty, which is welcome. Up next is “Wonder,” another personal favorite. It takes the echoic dreaminess explored before and energizes it with a killer driving beat. It also brings back their trademark guitar buzz, and Praksti leans more towards his Oberst side with impassioned, shout-singing vocals during the choruses. These instruments reflect the lyrical dichotomy of wonder observed and lost: “When we were young/we collapsed like lungs/and love was so true/Yeah, we went high/Let’s fuckin’ get high/and corrode our insides/And love’s just cruel/but it’s, cooool.” This is one to throw on when you’re cruising down a highway.
With a title like “Mallrat’s Dream,” you might expect less philosophical lyrics than, “Time moves fast when everything is slow,” and “It’s only existence/It’s a game you play inside your head.” But Honey still has plenty of surprises in store (pun sort of intended.) Several of the rare quiet moments on this record occur here, especially in the verses, where O’Toole’s pulsing bass and Meindl’s steady rhythm take center stage. With a foot-tapping beat and guitars that travel expertly from sustained and ethereal to driving and gritty, this song is probably the closest thing the band has to an easy-listening tune. But it’s a welcome reprieve, and certainly doesn’t disappoint.
“Triangle Daydream” goes in pretty much the opposite direction; it’s the most openly bleak-sounding song so far. Procession-like instrumentals are a fitting frame for strange, densely-packed lyrics, such as: “Tiptoe to the witch trial in the disappearing fog/to see beneath the human eye/where, beauty’s beholden/and then/a demon crawls under your skin,” and “Pressing flowers into tombs/dilate the afternoon/Lay glittering in the gloom.” A recurring melancholy guitar riff throughout is a compelling connecting thread. The buildup of sonic layers towards the end reinforces the track’s sense of confusion and hopelessness, increasing the tension, before a slight release to single layers of everything. It’s odd, and it’s sad, but it’s well-executed.
The intuitive flow of the record continues with “At Twilight,” which picks up a bit in both energy and mood. A more conventional sound that recalls the Shins, with lower vocals from Praksti, seems to correlate with at least some determination from the speaker to do something about his sadness rather than just dwell in it: “I got plans to make a friend/to make me feel good, again.” The rhythmic and tonal shift to a more fueled, driving beat around two minutes in, combined with inventive guitar riffs, take this track to the next level.
Finally, “Leapt Into My Mind” has moments of triumph (starting with its victorious introductory guitar riff), which is fitting for an album closer. But if it were too saccharine or blatantly happy, it wouldn’t feel authentic to this band, or this album. Luckily that’s not the case. Honey draws its (relative) positivity here from acceptance of life’s struggles, rather than broadly overcoming them or pretending they don’t exist. This can be heard in the upbeat tone Praksti adapts when singing lines like, “When you were young, you said that/all your friends were smiling/But now you’re old instead/ and well, no one’s laughing,” and “And so we had our fun/and then, we all got older/But it’s okay, kid/You can cry on my shoulder.” But the extended fadeout, which alternates between effect-heavy strangeness and repetitive instrumental riffs, leaves you somewhat uncertain again. This last hurrah of doubt and weirdness is apt commentary on life itself, and shows a deeper understanding and maturity in the record’s voice. I always appreciate an album that progresses in outlook from start to finish, and Honey accomplishes that here.
In short, Mock Pop is angsty rock for the modern age that balances the raw and the precise, the cathartic and the deliberate, the strange and the universal. It’s a killer record.
The album will be available for purchase/streaming on Bandcamp and other online music outlets tomorrow, June 30th, as well as in physical form at their release show at Spirit. (If you’re too impatient to wait, the full album is streaming a day early here.) Bat Zuppel and Derider will also be performing. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the door, which opens at 9 PM. Check out the event page here for more info, and keep up with Honey on Facebook here.