Album cover by Dave Watt
Local music label/collective Golden Magnet has recently added a new band to its already-impressive roster: Side Eye, a trio that blends the brash, fun energy of punk with the hazy dreaminess and cool riffs of lo-fi and surf rock. You may have seen them playing around town, opening for acts like Dazzletine and Golden Magnet’s own Delicious Pastries, or heard their two-track teaser EP that came out last September. But on Friday, April 28th, the group will finally be dropping their first full-length album, “La Vague,” and commemorating the occasion with a release show at Belvedere’s in Lawrenceville.
And it’s definitely something worth celebrating—“La Vague” is a strong first release. Side Eye fills a long-neglected niche in modern music, and does so purposefully and intoxicatingly. Heavy old-school surf-rock influences combine with fresh instincts and snappy songwriting. They show impressive range, cycling through headbangers, blissed-out rides, and tracks that fall somewhere in the middle, with apparent ease. Their instinct for textures and structure is also on-point—fairly simple, repetitive elements are stitched together thoughtfully, making for an immersive listen. The layers of distorted guitar and vocal harmonies (with varying levels of effects) from all three members are crucial to this too. For a Pittsburgh band, they do a truly great job of capturing a beachy vibe. Which is great, because this is an album you’ll want to spin into (and throughout) the summer.
The undeniably catchy moves Side Eye makes in their songs (like the recurring use of punkish “Hey!”’s and call-and-response vocal lines) are prevented from becoming saccharine by the cool, confident, tongue-in-cheek attitude that pervades the record, both in the lyrics and their delivery. It’s clear that they’re looking to rock; they’re (to quote the sixth track, “Moto BF,”) “looking for a good time,” and they have no time for bullshit of any sort, especially from deadbeat dudes. For fans of La Luz, Courtney Barnett, or hell, just plain good music, “La Vague” is a must-listen.
The band features Chelsea Rumbaugh on guitar and vocals, Marie Mashyna on bass and vocals, and Carrie Battle on drums and vocals.
The record kicks off with a buzzy, distorted high guitar squeal, that moves immediately into the fast, cool, catchy rhythm of “Bittersweet.” Just shy of two minutes long, this lo-fi banger will make you want to jump around and sing along to the infectious call-and-response chorus: “But I can’t sit still (can’t sit still)/and I can’t run away (can’t run away)/No, I can’t sit still (can’t sit still)/No way.” For me, the highlight of the track was the surf-rock guitar riff that immediately follows this, while all three harmonize for the concluding “Ooh, wah-oooh, bittersweet.” That attitude I mentioned before comes through immediately, too. Though the song epitomizes conflicting feelings, Rumbaugh is very blunt about them when she sings, “Lost my buzz when I saw you comin’ my way/Gotta sit down before I go insane.” This song kicks things off on an energetic note, and gives you a good taste of what’s to come.
“It’s Not Easy” brings things to a slightly more chill, midtempo place. The pretty lead vocals go a bit higher (and a bit calmer) than in the previous track, matching the lower-key vibe, and the guitar loses a bit of its fuzz during the solo. Crooning back-up vocals provide cool texture, as does the more prominent bassline from Mashyna. All this, combined with the lilting tempo, make for a great track for driving to the beach. But in an interesting move, Side Eye took this head-nodding, shades-rocking musical vibe and paired it with lyrics that describe a tough emotional spot: “I’m so sorry/I went away/You’re so sorry/ooh, that you couldn’t stay;” and “I saw your gaze/fall to the floor/I turned away, and walked through the door.” The track ends with the chorus repeating and fading away, demonstrating that the situation described in the lyrics won’t have a neat, tidy, clearly-defined ending.
The third track, “IDWYL,” starts on an intriguing note, with echoic French words spoken over buzzy sound effects and a steadily building drumbeat. Their knack for hazy dreaminess is clearly displayed here, from the held-out, reverb-heavy guitar strums that vaguely recall Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” to the killer high riff that pops up throughout the track, to the beautiful cluster of vocal harmonies that repeat a straightforward sentiment, “I….don’t want your looo-o-ove.” These women have a great sense of what to do with all of their voices—they know, and are comfortable in, the vibe they’re producing. And the variety of song types they display in just the first three tracks is impressive: from punky to midtempo contemplative to fuzzy, well-layered bliss. But we’re not done yet.
“The Wave” lives up to its name, with ebbs and flows that move you along effortlessly between moments that pack a punch and softer, quieter ones. It starts off with high, slightly mournful-sounding vocals and a slow, subdued drumbeat, before an equally slow, lilting guitar line kicks in. The vocals are noticeably cleaner in this song, and it’s just all-around dreamy. With Side Eye, often the individual song elements themselves aren’t overly complicated, and are sometimes repetitive, but it’s all put together with a keen sense of what should go where, how much of “it” there should be, and how to transition. They use simplicity and repetition in a really smart and engaging way, making for songs that are as catchy as they are well-structured. A key example in this song is the brief pause just before the chorus, where Battle’s kick drum plays by itself, then synchronizes with Rumbaugh’s vocals as she sings “Here comes the, waaaaa-ave,” with all instruments and harmonies re-appearing on the last word.
The pace picks back up a bit with the foot-tapping “Billy Whispers,” as does the fuzzy grunge sound on the guitars. Once again, the trio’s knack for vocal harmonies shines through, combining call-and-response, lush layering, and slight reverb for a gorgeous, engrossing effect. The lyrics were occasionally hard to discern, but this didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the song at all. The words that did come through were direct: “You better not keep bringin’ me down…your secret’s out, and it’s all over town.” The repeated line in the chorus, “All you do is play,” seems to show frustration with this gossipy person, which again contrasts its pretty musical surroundings.
We come back to the punky energy of the beginning with my personal favorite track of the album, “Moto BF.” It’s fast (again under two minutes) and catchy as hell. Its lyrics describe a strained relationship with a dude whose only apparently appealing quality is his motorcycle: “You’re drinkin’ 40’s, in the backyard, in the middle of the day/You wanna have a conversation, well I’ve got nothing left to say/You caught me sneakin’ out the back door, in the middle of the night/I’m always lookin’ for a good time, you’re always lookin’ for a fight.” I love pretty much everything about “Moto BF,” from the lyrics themselves to the upfront, over-it tone in which they’re delivered, to the singalong chorus (“Mo-mo-motorcycle boyfriend, revvin’ right out of my heart”) and buzzy guitar parts. Sound effects in songs run the risk of sounding gimmicky, but Side Eye does it right, punctuating the ends of verses with a motorcycle revving sound or a well-placed yawn. When Rumbaugh sings, “Well I’m a bad girl baby, hope you know I don’t give a f**k,” you believe her. Essentially, it’s irresistible.
“Wild Eyes” brings us back to a more relaxed, hazy place, though Battle’s drums are loud and prominent throughout. The held-out, reverb-heavy guitars pair nicely with the vocal lines, which start out low before rising melodically and falling back down again. Again, the words themselves were sometimes hard to make out, but that didn’t detract from this pretty track. I appreciated the introduction of a call-and-response element in the second iteration of the verse to mix things up a bit: “I see (I see), your eyes (your eyes), drawing ideas in your head.” And the harmonizing during the ooh’s and oh’s at the end is, once again, gorgeous.
“I Wanna Be on TV” is probably the most straightforward song on the album, and it’s a lot of fun. A funky guitar riff brings us into a head-nodding, jump-around drumbeat, while the band sings, “I, wouldn’t mind, a moment of your time/I, wouldn’t mind, your eyes.” The vocals are spirited, especially when they move into the chorus, in which Rumbaugh sing-talks “We should do it!” “Nothing to it!” and “I wanna be on TV!,” interwoven with “ohhh-oh-woah”s. There’s an undeniable Go-Go’s-gone-punk vibe here, enhanced by the recurring, punctuating shouts of “Hey!”
The final track of “La Vague” is “Waste My Time 2017.” If you only look at the title, you might get the impression that it’s another boy-bashing anthem, but in fact, the opposite is true. It’s the one and only undeniable love song on the album. A hazy, blissed-out guitar track smoothly rides alongside pretty, lower vocals, which invite the listener to, “Waste time with me/underneath the willow tree/with blushes and dirty knees/underneath the willow tree/Darken by the hour/Love to see your heart deflowered.” This number has fewer vocal harmonies on it than any other, which feels appropriate, considering the more vulnerable subject matter. As the song progresses, reverb and effects are amped up, but its measured pace is consistent, making for a real lo-fi treat. It’s another captivating example of Side Eye’s versatility. The echoing vocals and drum riffs that close out the record are a lovely and satisfying conclusion.
All this to say, “La Vague” is a solid debut record that oozes cool and confidence, and is a perfect summer soundtrack. So make sure you don’t miss Side Eye’s release show, happening at Belvedere’s this Friday night, April 28th, at 9 PM. Mystic Seers and Talkers will be opening up. Tickets are $5 before 10 PM and $7 afterwards. Check out the Facebook event page here, and follow along with their band page here. The album should be available for download on their Bandcamp on Friday as well.