Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, (mostly) the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
It's art-punk, just in different clothes. Its composition is structured so tightly, so sparsely, the band uses blank space as its own instrument. The music of Lithics takes the shronky, jagged post-punk of bands like Kleenex/Liliput and Bush Tetras (some of my favorite groups in the subgenre) to a rigid extreme. Not rigid as in stiff or boring or devoid of unexpected shifts; rigid as in disciplined and precise and fastidiously authored.
On their 2016 debut Borrowed Floors, the band made the heavy hissing of their recording equipment a part of the musical composition. They were doing the shrill, staccato countermelodies with their guitars and mixing them into six-string scribbles even back then. Lithics played a tad looser than they do now, but that's still the difference between a tight knot of rope and a nail being drilled into a wall.
If you're a longtime reader of Throwaway Style, you know I've written about Lithics before. About two months into my run, when the column was published every week instead of once a month, Kill Rock Stars issued their excellent 2018 album Mating Surfaces, the No New York-influenced band's inspired foray into experiments with tempo and rhythm. The album sputtered and stuttered and clanged its way to brilliance, ending up one of the truly remarkable full-length projects of that calendar year (regardless of genre or regional constraints). When I saw the band open for then-labelmates Wimps in November of that year, their master of their musical space amazed me; their performance of "Still Forms" had a swing I still hear in my head.
You know all those no-wave kids were big free jazz nerds anyway.
Frontwoman Aubrey Hornor -- self-taught on guitar after spending many years as a drummer -- had said in interviews that "Hands" was one of her favorite songs the band has recorded well before it was released as the first single of their excellent third album Tower of Age (out now courtesy of Trouble in Mind). The song is undeniably an exceptionally crafted introduction to the band; the closest they've come to writing an honest-to-goodness hit single.
Bob Desaulniers' bass provides the lead melody to start while Hornor and guitarist Mason Crumley summon piercing countermelodies around it. Wiley Hickson nails a drum pattern focused on leaving snare hits out of the downbeat while tapping metronomic hi-hats in 6/4 time -- a time signature tricky to nail as well as he does. Hornor's lyrics gloss over a minimal-contact walk, "hands to the side," using pieces to tell a story.
Its wordless chorus is as loosey-goosey as the band gets, thunderous freeing chords being given the space to breathe before Hornor and Crumley make their guitars sound like sirens leading to the finish. Lithics have been hinting at the idea of being a "harsh pop band" since winning Willamette Week's Best New Band poll in 2017. After inching in that direction on Mating Surfaces, "Hands" serves as a full leap.
The skittish, anxious energy of Mating Surfaces still exists on Tower of Age, as being dissonant and nervous is a hallmark component of the band's musical identity. The songs on their new album are (mostly) pop-leaning without being formalist, the construction of their songs (mostly) oriented toward truly catchy work. "An Island" and the album's title track have a forward push, fragmented lyrics, and scratchy guitars reminiscent of early Sleater-Kinney, "VIctim's Jacket" even more so. Opener "Non" is a herky-jerky post-punk banger seemingly lifted straight from RIYL: Erase Errata playlists, the San Francisco band as influenced by Captain Beefheart as Lithics.
Guitars whine and shriek and the drums start, stop, throttle, and brake until the track sputters out. "Beat Fall" is a full-on dance floor filler, Desaulniers and Hickson's best foot forward (pun intended) as the band shakes off psychic fatigue; playing this song seems like a workout for the group's outstanding rhythm section.
For those who may be inclined to think I'm suggesting Lithics could be losing their gift for art-damaged post-punk, Tower of Age finds the band searching through various shifts in musicality to advance their particular talent both in subtle and radical ways.
Songs like "Twisting Vine" and "The Symptom" find the band tapping into off-center grooves, rhythms your garden variety rock band would be afraid to even poke with a ten-foot drumstick but plenty danceable all the same. The latter serves as the album's skittery highlight; guitars squawking and screaming over and around a three-chord strike offer the heavy suggestion of improvisation when the red light is on. Hickson's drums are as crisp as a slap in the face. "Twisting Vine" is most certainly a Lithics iteration of pop songcraft, featuring an indelible vocal melody from Hornor. Trying to catch the snare is like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole.
Lithics describes the lyrics Hornor sings as Dadaist, as well as steeped in the imagist tradition of words tightly edited to maximize its contribution to the whole of the presentation. Thematically, you have to dig deep into ephemera -- shells cut in halves, vines growing out of wine glasses, snake tattoos -- in order to determine what these songs are "about." There are allusions to the dulling effects of conformity and how time seems to devour our best years as they disappear behind us, but the true meaning of these songs are hidden in a puzzle piece pile of fractured narrative elements.
This all might sound a little too artsy and obtuse for popular consumption, but it's safe to say consumption, a trait tied very closely to disposability, is not why Lithics got into this line of work. The four members of this band craft their music with obsessively considered depth, interlocking each part of the process like making a timepiece. As studied as their approach to music is, however, they made damn certain people could dance to it.
"Isolation Du Plenty" has the lyric from which the title Create a Place comes from. Mr. Wrong's excellent album from earlier this year is an attempt to dance away the microaggression and trauma womxn experience in their everyday lives. Rape culture deniers disguised as teachers and social media engagement addicts disguised as presidents. Watching people creep past their window, waiting on the phone for a healthcare representative.
This Colleen Dodge-directed video is a performance-style piece heavy with individual shots of Mof, Ursula, and Leona performing their ode to solitude, dancing for the camera, and making an art piece out of glass paint. A slight graininess lightly fogs the production, as does the billowing smoke creeping from behind the band.
The video, less than two minutes in length, ends with the band hanging out in a structure of a type of industrial fabric very similar to the one Chuck McGill from Better Call Saul lined his house with while suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. It's all delightfully vintage, evoking the kind of videos punk bands who couldn't afford to buy their way onto MTV would make. (Which is not to say it looks cheap; it's more of a commentary on the major label stranglehold on promotion through music videos.)
Both drummer Ursula and video director Dodge had a few things to say about the making of the "Isolation Du Plenty" video. Their comments are below.
"This was Colleen's first music video, and she truly went above and beyond for us- from meticulously testing different light colors, to setting up a plexiglass for us to paint on. I have fond memories of the day we piled into a cargo van and careened through the streets of Manhattan gathering set materials.
We shot the music video on about 3 hours of sleep, which was our nightly average for all 5 days of our New York trip. Normally being on camera makes me nervous, but I was so simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, I didn't really have the space for those feelings. So it was pretty cool to let go and just get weird with it.
It felt so extravagant to fly to NY to shoot a music video, but the magic of those late October nights running around the city infused us with an energy I don't think we would have gotten in Portland. I feel lucky to have had this experience, especially in the wake of all we are going through right now. It's such a nice memory to look back on.” -- Ursula
"Mof and I have been friends since we were just young kids, ran away from Southern California to live together in Portland, and now that we are on opposite coasts, we are lucky enough that our love music and art has always kept us connected.
When I landed in Brooklyn I started working in the film industry and it opened me up to world visual storytelling. When Mr Wrong reached out to me with the opportunity to collaborate with them I took on with great excitement. The chance to creatively create with life-long friends is absolutely thrilling and I think that joy is captured in the video you see today.
The women in this band have such a power behind their songs - they don’t back down from the messages they put on broadcast and it infuses their sound with a true sincerity. I’m drawn to their fusion of high-contrast, woman-centered, throw-back 80s’ style in their music and look, one that you see as well in Mof’s art work. Upon listening to their latest album, Create a Place, visually, I wanted to capture that same imagery and feeling in the music video. It seemed natural to shoot on a vintage format and we landed on shooting on Hi-8; it really brings out this fuzzy home-video quality that let the colors become overly saturated and the details distort in all the right ways.
We also wanted a way to highlight each of the members, but make them feel apart of the same world. Once they landed in NYC, we took a day to assign everyone their colors and really feel the vibe that each color-zone brought. It was also super important to the band to highlight the creation part of the song and their ideals as a creative members within the band - together - so thats where the painting came in. Which ended up being some of my favorite footage, because you get to see them all together in an image, actually creating a place, and just having fun with it. They really brought it. As the song hits its last chorus, we wanted to give it a total explosion, mind-melt moment and, again, its great just to end on all of them together and that's what made this all magic." -- Colleen Dodge
We are headlong into the biggest civil rights movement of most of our lifetimes. We as Black people are fed up with being marginalized and ground under the boots of white supremacy. We are fed up with being overlooked. And from my vantage point, there are White people who stand with us. But as I mentioned in my open letter, the real change in our community comes after the protests have died down.
The Stranger has published an extensive guide to Black artists and African American-fronted bands in the Seattle area. (Though if you're a regular reader of Throwaway Style, there are dozens of artists you could add to this list, including certainly not limited to LIV, AJ Suede, and the Black Chevys, as well as Bruce Leroy, Seaan Brooks, Khris P, and a bunch of other members of Tacoma's rap scene.)
Vanishing Seattle has posted an equally extensive list of Black-owned Seattle businesses to support, and an essential read for our current cultural moment is Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo's bestselling book So You Want to Talk About Race. (And if you are looking to do more and aren't sure where to start, we at KEXP.org have provided a list of anti-racist and social justice resources.)
Putting a Black Lives Matter sign in your front yard is a nice sentiment, but to really put your words into action you must support the work we Black people have already been putting into this community. Being as though Seattle has been a historically White-dominated city, we're not very hard to find.
On their new album, the Portland band breaks their signature post-punk with a hammer and glues it back together with dissonance.