A few weeks ago, during my weekly radio show, after a lengthy set of East Coast lo-fi indie pop, I referred to the songs as “tweemo” music. It’s a horribly gaudy and generic categorization, but there is a bit of truth to the name. Because starting last year and running full force through 2013, there has been a considerable scene growing in indie’s underground. With a focus on plaintive, lo-fi songs mostly released on cassette and spearheaded by labels like Brooklyn’s Birdtapes and Orchid Tapes, tape hiss and confessional lyrics has been yet again growing a small, yet dedicated, fanbase.
Alex G has been there from the beginning. Perhaps not directly involved with the scene’s inner workings, but as a direct influence on some of it’s biggest breakouts so far: bands like Julia Brown, Pill Friends, Attic Abasement, and Elvis Depressedly. His two albums last year, Trick and Rules didn’t so much as fly under the radar as they dug a hole under the radar station and infiltrated it from the inside. In just over a year Alex has gone from local DIY hero to being included on a list of “20 Indie Classics” with the likes of Minor Threat, Bright Eyes, Slowdive, and The Microphones.
R.L. Kelly, on the other hand, is a brand new addition to this crew. The solo project of Kiss Kiss Fantastic‘s Rachel Levy, her debut album Life’s a Bummer was released this February to much fanfare. Both artists occupy a very specific space of melancholy that highlights devastation in life’s minutiae. “I don’t like how things change,” Alex crooned late last year. “How it hurts to change when everything is not enough,” Rachel echoed just a few months later.
There are few moments of pure joy on Split, though the catharsis does feel somewhat relieving. The songs are short and affective, like a knife directly to your ribs. There are hooks piled on top of hooks, but when you catch yourself singing, “What I need to be okay with myself / and everybody else,” while walking down the street, it’s a little disconcerting. Out of all the admirable things about this collaboration, the ability of these two musicians to mask their crushing lyrics under literal pop perfection might the most admirable.
R.L. Kelly’s side deals mainly with mental struggles: coping with depression, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness. “Everyday” builds itself around an overblown bass loop while Levy questions—but doesn’t necessarily challenge—her self-deprecating mental state. The chorus-less “Fake Out” attempts to personify the hidden glowing thing that “floats next to” her bed, eventually consuming her entirely. The third track on her side, “The Voices,” ends with the devastating resolution: “Ask the voice in my head, ‘Am I’m okay?’ / She says, ‘Get out of my head.’” The mental battle is nonstop, and ends in just under seven minutes. It’s a wrenching, beautiful continuation of her debut record—something somehow simultaneously more accessible and yet equally upsetting.
Alex G, on the other hand, is a little less direct with his heartbreak. Generally, he is a storyteller, and his tracks on Split range from the confessional to the magical. “Magic Mirror” is heavily processed and distorted, with Alex trading lines with what sounds like a young girl. The lyrics are nearly unintelligible but the parts that peek through (“When it fades, I’m a slave to you”) make the struggle worth all of the sadness. Bar stool confessional “Trade” meanders through mumbled admissions of “I’m way too old to give a shit” and “there is no one inside this body.” Even if there is an indignant tone to the lyrics, it feels pitifully depressive.
The highlight of the entire record is Alex G’s “Adam.” What begins as a tale of schoolyard bullying becomes a heartfelt expression of love, swapping the “I’ll never let it go” from the first verse with “I want you so.” It flips the song’s entire context upside down in just four words, timed in perfect succession with a wailing organ.
Alex and Rachel live for these little mind-bending moments when things come full circle. Unearthing deeply buried emotions and feelings in the listener is what these two do best, and it’s nothing short of destiny that the two teamed up for a release like this. Levy famously covered Alex’s “Change” on her debut earlier this year, and even then the pairing made perfect sense. That their collaboration is this perfect is a testament to the strength of this beautiful little scene the internet has birthed. Thanks to the internet, collaborations of this quality have become increasingly common. But there’s an indescribable relief that these two have created here that is simply unmatched in 2013. Like R.L. Kelly says on “Everyday”: when I listen to these songs it’s almost feels like nothing’s wrong.
Alex G and R.L. Kelly’s Split is out now via Birdtapes.