Photo by Katie Krulock
Album artwork by Xiola Jensen
There were a lot of incredible Pittsburgh releases in 2018. (Some of which we’ve covered, others we haven’t had the chance to.) A little over a month ago, a new hometown indie pop duo called Sad Girls Aquatics Club added to this list by dropping their debut album, Vodkawine. And let me tell you, I was not ready.
I can’t overstate how much I love this record. This seven-track album is a standout among standouts. It’s a gut-punch in gorgeous packaging. It’s hazy, holographic heartbreak. It’s dreamy despair. It’s something I didn’t know Pittsburgh—for all the great artists it’s home to—was capable of creating. But I’m very grateful for the surprise.
If you dig artists like Mild High Club and Ariel Pink, you’ll probably dig Sad Girls Aquatics Club (comprised of Chelsea Rumbaugh and Marie Mashyna.) Sweet ethereal synths build, resonate, and retreat in lush, echoic clusters. Sometimes they buzz with anxiety or reach and bend with heartbreak. Though these synths tend to dominate the sonic landscape, SGAC also knows just where to incorporate a more traditional element (classic piano, harp picks and strums, straight up electric guitar) or an atmospheric effect (static, crickets, hand claps, a phone call going to voicemail) to take these songs to the next level.
This includes percussion, too. Their rhythms, tempos, and drumbeats themselves are simultaneously catchy and inventive. Slowdowns and syncopated rolls and hits offer killer surprises. Even when things are more consistent, they provide an intricate, attention-grabbing undercurrent (from genuine bops like “Oh Billy” and “Goth Annihilation” to more melancholy tracks like “How Do I Get What I Want” and “Hearts Disagree.”)
Overall, SGAC’s instincts for immersive sonic layering are incredibly sharp. They do an excellent job of building a feeling, ruminating on it with subtle variations, and going somewhere a bit sideways with it to really drive the impact home. You’re regularly caught off-guard in excellent ways, without the songs ever sounding distracted or disorganized. They’re master experimenters, and you come to trust them almost immediately.
All this provides a devastatingly gorgeous frame for vulnerable, evocative lyrics. SGAC mainly covers the well-explored territory of post-breakup pain and introspection; in their own words, the process of making the record was “fueled by late night Taco Bell runs, heartache, and sometimes a drink we invented called vodkawine.” But with lines such as “Oh no, you’re invincible,” and “But the moon has brought its prophecy/What’s best for you was never for me,” they do so with a striking openness that sets them apart. And Rumbaugh’s and Mashyna’s pretty voices, dripping with cool, are the final piece of this puzzle. Their tone is appealingly lackadaisical, yet the effort they put into both their melodies and harmonies is obvious. They sound very similar, and their harmonic interplay tends to happen close together, helping create the hazy, shoegaze-y vibe of the album. (They also take turns singing lead on the record, beginning with Mashyna.) Occasionally producers Ryan Hizer and Dane Adelman sing as well, adding more vocal depth. It’s nothing short of dreamy.
Safe to say this ain’t your momma’s synthpop. SGAC has created magic with Vodkawine. It’s a drink you’ll want to indulge in over and over again. And with no chance of a hangover, you really, really should.
Rumbaugh plays guitar while Mashyna takes the bass, and they collaborate on vocals, synths, and beats. The album was produced by Hizer and Adelman, and Nate Campisi mixed and mastered it. Evan Meindl (drummer of fellow local band Rave Ami) contributed percussion for “Hearts Disagree,” and Brendan Miller contributed guitar on the final number, “Strange Place.”
The album opens with the title track, “Vodkawine.” A fly-like buzz is gradually built upon, layer by layer, with high siren-like synths ringing out over a more pleasant melody below, before the beat comes in, slow and deliberate. The hazy vocals alternate between a low, almost conversational tone in the verses and a high crooning lament in the choruses. The lyrics are a bit blurry and hard to make out, recalling slurred speech that the speaker might have after a few too many glasses of vodkawine. But some lines can be distinguished, such as, “Looking down/from my height/Push you out/Got you in my sight,” and the recurring ending line of the chorus: “I-I-I-I di-i-i-ie every time.” Standout moments include the syncopated percussive riff that shines around four minutes in, the classical piano melody that follows not long after, and the perfect slowdown at the very end. It’s a bold, fantastic start, and it shows you what they’re capable of.
“Oh Billy,” meanwhile, has a more upbeat, surf-rock-influenced feel. A near-constant recurring guitar line and prominent, energetic percussion are the stars here. This fun, catchy music contains some less-fun lyrics, working through a recent heartache that the speaker is still somewhat in denial about: “I can’t sleep, wondering where you might be/Shorten your leash, not knowing you had broke free/It’s all right, I know you will come back someday/It’s all right, cause I’ll never tell you to stay/Oh Billy, it kills me, you still keep your heart from my hands.” This is where the “breakup” in “breakup pop” comes in. Even so, the music is so infectiously surf-y and retro that this could be the intro song in an 80’s movie about teens/young adults in California. It’s what would play while we watch the cool rich girl leaving high school, driving home in a red convertible on palm-tree-lined roads.
“How Do I Get What I Want” pushes things in a more blatantly melancholy, introspective direction. Mashyna’s and Rumbaugh’s vocals are lower and moodier, taking frequent do-ti half steps downward to emphasize their uncertainty and sadness. The lyrics pack a punch with their starkness and honesty: “I know it’s no good for me,” “I need it all, faster,” and the repeated question in the chorus: “How do I get, what I want?” This repetition emphasizes how much the speaker doesn’t know the answer, and how desperate they are to find it. A high, keening, slightly delayed synth interlude also recurs throughout the track, and sonically transmits this despair so beautifully. Listen for the bridge, when it gets a chance to unfold and go back and forth with a reverberating guitar line underneath it. They take turns moving until they collide in a slightly discordant, arrhythmic descension—it’s incredible.
The knife gets twisted in a little more with the gorgeously sad “Hearts Disagree.” The harp picking and strumming woven throughout recalls something angelic, Cupid-like, a lovely sonic contrast to the spirit-crushing subject matter. Rumbaugh takes the vocal lead with lines like: “There’s nothin’ for you boy/but what we shared/Oh what a crying shame/what we’ll become/I’d do it all for love/but you weren’t the one/Oh no, you’re invincible…” This casual, wrenching openness perfectly captures both the emotional detachment and intense emotional pain of heartbreak. The unexpected melodic dip in the final syllable of the chorus (“our hearts dis-a-gree…”) is one of my favorite choices on the record. Its percussion (provided by Meindl of Rave Ami) is processional, almost militaristic. This highlights the inevitability of the speaker’s march towards solitude, to the aftermath of the hearts disagreeing. SGAC’s use of a voicemail recording in the bridge and the high, buzzy, bendy turn the synths take after the second chorus are effective choices too. My final note from my first time listening says it best: “Damn.”
“Stay Zen My Hoes” is, fittingly, a short meditative break. The cricket chirps from the very end of the previous track carry over and are the primary sound here. Light static and subtle found sounds float around pretty, spacey, reverberating synths. This intermission is well-placed, and shows the group’s incredible knack for creating atmospheres.
“Goth Annihilation” returns us to upbeat, 80’s-inspired territory again. But instead of surf-rock, new wave and synthpop are the influences of choice. High glitchy, almost percussive synths pulse over super low notes. It’s moody and energetic and spacey and so cool. The lyrics, meanwhile, lean more towards the evocative and esoteric. Mashyna takes the lead on lines like, “Peel back my skin/I wanna know what to wear/Tell me what to say/to make my eyes disappear.” Their close, hazy, clustered harmonies bring back that intoxicating shoegaze touch as well. This sweet, cool hypnosis kind of falls apart towards the end—with weirder, darker harmonies; bendy, effect-heavy synths; and staggered fadeouts. It sounds like the “annihilation” mentioned in the title. This discord is purposeful, and masterfully executed.
Finally, we get to “Strange Place.” I’ve written a novel already, so I’ll try to keep it brief. This track has a stronger vocal focus than any others (with the addition of Hizer’s male voice adding cool, unexpected dimension.) It’s fitting for the deep self-questioning explored in the lyrics, in the aftermath of some sort of relationship gone sour, partially at the speaker’s hands: “What a strange place I’m findin’ myself/I didn’t know, I only hope I could’ve helped/Never dreamt to speak on your behalf/I gotta go, I need some time to reflect.” The eventual, tough conclusion is “what’s best for you was never for me.” This honesty, along with a recurring, repetitive key/piano riff and intricate, staccato percussive layers, is trademark SGAC. A fitting conclusion to an emotional journey of an album.
On SGAC’s Facebook and Instagram pages, they brand their sound as “breakup pop for idiots.” And that’s tongue-in-cheek true. But I also think it goes a little deeper. In ways piercingly personal and vulnerable, Vodkawine speaks to the generational anxiety and sadness of young adults today. It speaks to our particular dichotomy of constant connection and profound isolation; to performing happiness and stability while secretly battling their opposites; and to the “strange place” we’re findin’ ourselves—in a world more chaotic and cruel, with futures more uncertain, than what we prepared for or were promised. I felt this most in the third track, whose chorus repeatedly, almost hopelessly asks, “How do I get what I want?”
Sad Girls Aquatics Club doesn’t necessarily have the answer. But by articulating these anxieties in such a shimmering, immersive way, they at least offer the foundation of one: the knowledge that you’re not the only one struggling. (It is a club, after all.)
“Our intention was to create an inclusive environment where people can connect to our music,” the duo says, “and hopefully, not feel so alone in their vulnerability.” Mission accomplished. And you sounded damn cool doing it.
Sad Girls Aquatics Club don’t currently have any shows scheduled, but they will be out and about in 2019, so keep your eyes peeled. (Rumor has it that a music video is in the works, too.) Vodkawine is available on all major streaming and download platforms, including Bandcamp and Spotify. Stay connected with them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram so you can treat yourself to their live show once it’s ready.