So rare is it that the lo-fi bedroom pop aesthetic isn’t bogged down in one-noted instrumentation and saturated theatricalities. The majority of the Bandcamp indie scene is dominated by artists who use the familiar sound as an excuse for actual innovation and individuality. At some point, the sound of the bedroom loses its potency, exploiting the niche approach as a crutch and an excuse. But when the lo-fi tones couple with genuine inexperience and tenacity for more, it can blossom into something devastating and authentically earned. The bedroom, above all, represents a place of sanctity, a space of emotional isolation free of judgment. There’s nowhere else that you can freely contemplate your insecurities, your darkest thoughts, cast away your barriers, and let it all flow in waves of shameless misery. And on the their latest collaborative effort, The Loner(s) and Drive Me Home Please masterfully explore all that can be encompassed within this harrowingly intimate motif.
To be clear, this is not a collaborative output. This is a “split” EP, two separate efforts sewn together and put out in one collection. And yes, there’s a bit of a disjoint between the first four songs and the last three, but this project is one that’s built upon the feelings of loneliness. Had the two performed together on any track, the purpose of individualism would have been lost for the sake of cohesion. Instead, what we’re given is an unadulterated take on the starving artist, a dual tale of hopelessness.
While both musicians tackle themes of internal desolation, their individualized takes on bedroom pop is what makes the split EP function so naturally. The Loner(s)’ first half plays like a “best of” of underground success stories, capturing the feelings that resonated so deeply in early Microphones and Modest Mouse. The backing instrumentation of “how to” is reminiscent of “Wild Packs of Family Dogs“, but the vocalization has that same stripped-away childlike honesty that Phil Elverum has long perfected. Throughout the first four tracks is an underlying soft static layering, emphasizing the claustrophobia that the EP is so deeply soaked in.
But James Keegan utilizes every aspect to fully encapsulate the tones of anguish. Sonically, it’s inescapable. But his song structures, lyrics, and song titles bring about that same kind of inexorable sadness. “i wanna get addicted to painkillers lol” feels like a cry for help, the inclusion of the jokey “lol” acting as a failed undercut of the sentiment’s seriousness. The track’s indelible chorus of “you start moving backwards now” is the culmination of an overwhelming sense of stagnation; a loss of momentum. And the straightforward “miss” gives a muted take on yearning for something better, begging to not have to go through the non-specific hardships ever again.The spurts of field recordings, false starts, and practice sessions give weight to the lonesomeness that suffocates for a mere eleven minutes. It’s played out to describe the lo-fi aesthetics as raw, but given how delicately honest The Loner(s)’ efforts are, it feels misleading to describe it as anything but.
Once the first half of the EP ends, it’s hard to imagine a better use of the independent sound in expressing the hardships and suffering that life brings. But once Drive Me Home Please starts up, it’s clear the first half was an act of establishing tone before the true climax, the sonic equivalent to the eye of the hurricane. Now, to be fair, the second half feels immensely more polished and less bedroom-driven, though not without losing its charm. “haha shit” opens as a lullaby to clinical depression, with Zach Hallenbeck crooning about seemingly random thoughts that flood his mind – crying, the temperature of the room, and an ongoing knot in his stomach. But the first minute of the track (really the first twelve minutes of the EP) establishes the softly somber tone before the explosion of harsh feedback collocates everything that came before it. Hallenbeck screams with a sense of despair and anger that hasn’t felt so deservedly frenzied since Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv The Valley, Oh!“. Throughout the rage, he finds time to ponder why he is the way he is, never fully accepting it but still refraining from fully dispelling it.
The final two tracks give a stronger, less vague direction for the themes that are relentlessly dished out on the EP. The song “drive me home please” plays like a plea letter to Hallenbeck’s mother. He begs her to “just tell me that you love me”, posing the difficult question of whether she’ll pick him up from college if he realizes it’s too much. Never receiving an answer, he desperately asks whether graduating college will be the end of his era of being a kid, of depending on his friends to get by and survive. It feels like the realization that acts as a precursor to suicide, but “apple cider vinegar” silences those fears. The closing track presents the lightest aura of the EP, giving a sense of hope amidst the hopelessness, despite the lyricism revolving around giving up when faced with the loss of what you value most. It’s a confusing message to leave on, but anyone who’s gone through the emotions the duo present knows just how conflicting and unwavering your mindset can become.
It’s astonishing that a project with such thematic resolve and established tone is being released in an underground capacity, one where only those who know the artists are likely to ever hear it. Truthfully, had we not been emailed a link to the EP from a representative of Bangkok Blend, there’s no way we would have given the release a listen, assuming we ever discovered it. It’s representative of the hidden gems that lay beneath the layers and layers of PR-driven releases and big-name outputs. It can be scary to ask “what if?” in the capacity of artistry and music, especially in the age of the internet, but as Keegan and Hallenbeck showcase on their split EP, there’s positivity to be had at the end of relentless agitation and trouble. To get there is personal and difficult, but given dedication, entirely feasible.
– Zach W.