Still, on their sophomore effort, Still Life, they manage to take a quantum leap forward in songwriting, production, and depth, all somehow without seeming to try. These 12 deft songs are full of late-summer sunlight and deep shadows, pained grins and shared jokes, shy declarations of love and quietly nursed heartbreak. Still Life resurrects a brief, romantic moment in the late-'80s, right after post-punk and immediately before alt-rock, when it seemed like any scrappy indie band might stumble across a hit.
While the songs on Oh Boy were often written on the spot, in practice rooms, Still Life was more deliberate. Romano, Naidus, and Ferrer split the songwriting duties, sending each other demos by email, an arrangement that grew permanent when quarantine hit. The songs brought out competition, even if Romano teases Naidus for denying it. "I own it. I love it," he says. "When Alex sent me 'Made of Moods,' I was blown away. I thought it was the best thing he'd ever written. I got jealous, so I immediately wrote 'In Gray & Blue.’"
The result is the finest batch of songs they've ever produced. From Naidus' velvet-lined JAMC tribute "Half A Feeling" to Ferrer's Let It Be-era Replacements-tinged lament "The Double" to Romano's "In Gray & Blue," these are gold-standard indie-pop gems from emerging masters of the form. The lyrics are downcast, empathetic, and quiet, little sketched portraits of evanescent feelings. "I got half a feeling/you're not the one who's really alive," Naidus sings on first single "Half A Feeling," while overdriven guitar churns up dirt clouds and the do, do-do, POW drumbeat sends the song racing towards sunset. "At the end of the world/Where were you?" he wonders on "At the End or the World," a simple, affecting plea for pure companionship and love as structures large and small crumble outside.
The band recorded Still Life with Lewis Pesacov (Fool’s Gold, Foreign Born, Peel’d), testing and teasing out new sounds at his intimate backyard studio in Echo Park. For mixing, Massage sent the songs to Jed Smith, an indie-pop auteur and lo-fi genius whose talent for recreating pretty much any conceivable songwriting or production era alone in his bedroom is the stuff of underground legend. Smith took the little flames these songs made and spread their glow wide enough to light a field. "What he did went way beyond mixing," Naidus said. When they decided that the drums on "Anna" felt metronomic, not free or tumbling enough, Smith just sat down at the kit and played a new drum part—voila, now the song had the exact sloppy, headlong precision they desired. "We could tell him we wanted a song to feel more bright and crinkly—just like, two adjectives and maybe a band name," Naidus laughs. "He would just run with that, and when we heard the song again it would have this perfect, winding new guitar countermelody in it. That was all Jed." Romano concurs: "There's no one whose sensibility I respect more."
As a result of all this care and attention, Still Life glows with the sincerity and unfakeable warmth of the era they so lovingly channel. Like the best Gin Blossoms chorus you still remember, the songs on Still Life stir big, pure emotions, but uneasy truths about adulthood linger, just below the surface. Maybe the exact mix of ringing guitars and two-part harmonies can chase those feelings away, or redeem them, for at least a minute or three. - Jayson Greene