Artist: Lewis Del Mar
Album: Lewis Del Mar
In Brief: An interesting blend of Latin-inspired rhythms and guitar parts with indie/experimental rock sensibilities that are equal parts ambient and abrasive. Not every experiment works, but the effect of these unique ingredients coming together can be quite alluring when they get it just right.
If I told you I’d been listening to an experimental rock duo from New York City whose music contained traces of Latin music influence, what would come to mind? When Lewis Del Mar was first described to me, the first bands that popped into my head were Trails and Ways (a West Coast band who merges the Latin influence with more of a sunny indie pop vibe) and Vampire Weekend (who are well-known in indie rock for blending African and Caribbean sounds into their particular brand of indie rock). Actually listening to their music, hearing how some of the bare, acoustic guitar melodies would mingle with the weightier drums and bass, found sounds, and even sometimes bits of abrasive electronic noise, I immediately threw those comparisons out the window. This reminded me a little more of TV on the Radio if they’d just taken a trip to Central America, combined with the indie-urban sensibilities of Glass Animals and the irreverent attitude of Incubus in their prime. Maybe throw in little bits of Modest Mouse or Alt-J as well. There’s really no single comparison that sums it up, as Lewis Del Mar’s music is an odd mixture of influences that never quite plays out the way you’d expect just from hearing the intro to a song. Their self-titled debut puts forth two sides of the band’s personality – one that wants to evoke a nostalgic sense of place and grab the listener with a vibrant hook, and another that wants to dismantle those expectations and startle the listener with a sudden change of pace mid-song, to make them listen for the details and not just the catchy stuff. At times these two aspects of the band’s personality seem at odds with each other, but for the most part, their self-titled debut, released in late 2016, makes a compelling case for their unique brand of music.
In terms of lyrical outlook, Lewis Del Mar is also difficult to sum up in that area. There’s definitely a carefree, bohemian sort of feel to some of their lyrics, but at other times they can be troubled, intense, and even confrontational. I suppose this is fitting considering the community of Rockaway Beach in Queens that they currently call home, which juts out into the ocean (giving them the “Del Mar” part of their name) and is conducive to simply kicking back on the beach and enjoying the waves, but which also has a troubled and complex history. Similarly, some of the duo’s musical influence comes from lead singer/guitarist Danny Miller‘s Nicaraguan ancestry, specifically his father whom the band gets the “Lewis” part of their name from (and apparently drummer/producer Max Harwood‘s father also has the same first name). I haven’t figured out yet if any of the group’s lyrics have a political bent that is intended to address the juxtaposition of tumultuous cultural history and pristine physical geography that comes to mind when I think of pretty much any place in that part of the world, but the music certainly seems to reflect both. Lewis Del Mar isn’t an easy group to figure out, but their music is engaging and just unpredictable enough that I’m compelled to keep trying.
1. Such Small Scenes
For such a brief song, this first track really throws listeners into the deep end of the pool. The first thing you hear is three distorted bass notes over noisy, clattering drums, with what seems like an off-key vocal harmony chiming in. It’s disorienting, but the noisy stuff drops out pretty quickly and then an acoustic guitar riff and a lively Latin rhythm pick up, helping us make a little more sense of the strange intro. For the next minute or so, it’s pure fast-paced bliss, even though the lyrics hint at some sort of torment felt by a man who is either homeless or has been kicked out of his family. It’s a small enough vignette (hence the title) that I don’t fully understand the story being told, but I like how the song has time to grow and change despite being only two minutes long, eventually collapsing back into the muddled mess of sound that it started with.
This is the single that first got the band some buzz. it’s easy to see why. It’s probably the best balance of catchy riff, strong rhythmic payoff, troubled lyrics and uneasy pauses on the entire record, and as such, it’s an ideal introduction to the band’s sound. I love how skeletal the acoustic melody is, how it keeps stopping and starting, and how the rhythm goes back and forth between the quiet creep of an electronic hum to full-blown, manic drums with fuzzy, staticky production in a few places. The music does such a great job of mirroring the frustration Danny feels over a reasonable voice not being audible above the noise. He doesn’t mince words at all with his opening lines: “Can you please sit the f*ck down?/Protesting in your paper crown/You love to feel offended/Fighting from computer trenches.” It’s everything a rational person has ever felt reading the comments section of a YouTube video or a poorly moderated message board thread. Whoever’s opinion is shouted the loudest apparently wins in the wildest, west-est parts of the Internet, and that’s what I guess he had to get off his chest here. Ironically, some of the most provocative lyrical imagery shows up in a spoken word bit that can be heard to hear in the background given all the other things going on in the mix, but that’s probably the point. I love how the bridge leads out of this, lamenting “God can’t whisper when the bass is up” as the drums and bass reach their most deafening peak, right before a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then the chorus comes slamming back in. Overall the mix of sounds and moods feels a bit rough, but give the subject matter, it’s almost certainly meant to.
3. 14 Faces
A solid follow-up tune with another stick-in-your-head riff is up next – this one also pulls off a balance between the delicate acoustic bits and the driving, percussion-heavy chorus (lots of cowbell and synth bass here) with Danny’s frantic vocals reaching a boiling point. I’m having a harder time discerning what Danny’s singing about this time – there’s definitely some lamenting the loss of his reckless youth, but the whole “14 faces” thing kind of mystifies me. I get that “two for each day” could be taken to mean that he puts on so many different personalities in a given week that he doesn’t really know who he is any more, but I haven’t quite connected that to the whole issue of aging, unless the loss of authenticity is meant as a theme tying these two ideas together. This one’s a really fun listen, marred somewhat by the chattering heard in the bridge, most of which seems to be a conversation between some friends about a movie they’ve seen, to which Danny finally responds that he hasn’t seen it, he’s only watched the trailer. I’m not sure if this is meant to play into the theme of the song, if it’s meant as a bit of wry humor, or if it’s just a bit of studio chatter that they threw in for the hell of it. It’s the only thing I don’t like about the song, since it feels like it takes up a lot more space in the middle of the track than it actually does.
4. Painting (Masterpiece)
This song may well be the “black sheep hit” of the bunch – it’s pretty obviously primed for crossover success, what with its easygoing melody, its pseudo-tropical vibe, and its uplifting lyrics about self-expression. I almost feel like I have to apologize for singling it out as a favorite. (Even more so now that a snippet of it can be heard in an ad for TJ Maxx. At least the bright colors fit the lyrics.) But I honestly feel that they did this without compromising their sound – just because it’s less experimental and doesn’t take any sonic detours from the poppier vibe it establishes doesn’t mean that the band put anything less that great care into its creation. They have a real gift for syncopation here, both in the rhythm and the lyrics, that makes the listener feel immediately at east, like they’re being encouraged to go out and make a big messy portrait of the world around them and not worry about who has to clean it up and who might try to whitewash it. There’s some subtle social commentary there, I think, and also some knowledge of the metaphor they’re using, since they name-drop Jackson Pollock and John McHale as inspirations. The theme of following your own muse and not fitting inside someone else’s rigid lines that they expect you to color within is probably as old as music itself, but here in 2017 when we apparently still have to argue about what to do with folks who don’t just want to hang out with the people who checked the same ethnicity box as them on a survey, or who don’t fit neatly into common notions of the gender binary, etc., affirmation of this sort would seem to be in short supply.
5. Puerto Cabezas, NI
The chasm between the Latin-inspired, rhythm-heavy parts of songs and the more spacious, ambient parts seems to widen as we move into the middle section of the record. I feel like the next four tracks all display pretty strong contrast between the two. This track, as you might gather from the name, contains the most specific reference to Danny’s heritage, as it’s named for a town on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. I’m not sure what’s up with the telegraph or typewriter sound heard in the background at the beginning, but it adds to the otherworldly flavor in its own weird way. The song’s hook begins to paint a scene of a still-developing society that was apparently energizing in some way for him to visit: “In the streets without the street lights/And no power lines/I am electric.” The lyrics bridge urban and oceanfront imagery, as if trying to untangle the dichotomy of peaceful and chaotic that seems to characterize the city. Oh, and don’t forget the humidity. I love how, after setting it up with a line ending in the word “street”, he subverts the expect rhyme “As I’m movin’ to the beat” by instead singing “As I move into the heat.” He hints near the end that he’s trying to retrace the steps of his own father, as the song hangs on an eerie note while he ponders, “Why do I never call you now?” The song drifts off, unresolved, on the line “Bottom of the ocean…” This seems like it’s going to lead into another verse, but then, unexpectedly, it’s over.
6. Tap Water Drinking
I have some really mixed feelings about this song. It’s probably got the most awkward lyrics of anything on the album, which reminds me of how I initially reacted to several songs on The 1975‘s last record, where I found it hard to untangle the brilliant turns of phrase from the goofy ones. The lone f-bombs in “Loud(y)” and “Painting” probably would have earned the album its Explicit Lyrics sticker on their own, but this track is where it really goes into NSFW territory: “‘Cause who goes to Alaska/When it snows in New York City/And who runs for the mountains/When the Rock is a tall-ass building/And every time you see it/You think that you’re forgiven/So you felt no guilt when we f*cked on the dock in Brooklyn/Acting like children.” Questionable geographical logic aside, it becomes clear that the “forbidden fruit” referenced in the first verse is a younger girl he’s seeing who is cheating on someone else to be with him, probably for superficial reasons. And he’s sort of casting aside the guilt he knows he should probably feel, because hey, all the gallivanting off to Vegas and New York and all the other places she’s never seen before sure is a lot of fun. Musically, this track shows the most impressive range of anything on the record, mostly unfolding over a laid-back, acoustic hip-hop sort of a beat with some eerie synths lurking in the background, but taking a hard turn into experimental rock territory as the final verse reaches its peak of intensity. The loud, thumping bass almost seems designed to hurt your ears, and the scratchy electric guitar solo that comes right the hell out of nowhere is like nails on a chalkboard at first. I’ve come to really admire the gumption it took for the band to end the song like that, but on first listen, I genuinely didn’t know what the hell was going on.
7. Malt Liquor
Wow, “Malt Liquor” is actually the title of this song? “My brain remembers it as “Pleasure Brand New”, since that’s the line that the chorus ends on. There’s a lot about this track that I don’t seem to recall as easily some of the others, and I can’t say it’s doing anything wrong, but I keep thinking of the surrounding tracks when trying to recall how this one goes, which isn’t good. I guess there’s a little more murkiness to the production, which fits the lyrics pretty well, since they’re about getting so blackout drunk at a party that the pursuit of pleasure turns into sickness and blurred memories. It’s a pattern that Danny seems to want to escape, but he has a hard time saying no when his friends just want to have a good time. There are some interesting vocal samples and stuttering production effects as the song gets deeper into its drunken haze, but I don’t find the simplistic rhymes into the chorus to be all that engaging, and I feel like some of the other sound collages the band has come up with are at a much more advanced level than this one.
According to the lyrics, the distorted vocal samples at the beginning of this song are saying, “I don’t want a thing from you.” I’m skeptical about that, because there are too many syllables being sung, but whatever, it’s an interesting way to start a song. This track pulls off a pretty slick transition between a slow piano ballad in 6/8 time and a highly kinetic chorus and instrumental breakdown in 4/4, deliberately blurring the lines as the two time signatures blur together and compete with each other in a few places. The mood appropriately goes from downcast to furious, and Danny’s lyrics seem to imply that he’s been used as a sort of emotionless plaything for an abusive or outright crazy ex-lover who keeps coming back around for another booty call. The acronym in the title stands for “Heart Down Low”, which is revealed by the chorus, where he unleashes his frustration at her for all the time he’s spent hiding his true feelings of contempt from her while they fake a relationship. It’s pretty intense stuff. The only real drawbacks to this song are the occasional awkwardly written lyric (“So I broke all of the lights in my hometown/So you never think I’m home when I’m not now”) and the annoying repetition of “Now now, I know know know” in the bridge. Aside from that, I love the unpredictable energy of this track. (Also, I’m kind of amused that they worked the Spanish curseword “pendejo”, which I always assumed just meant “idiot”, but which is apparently way more severe than that, into the otherwise English lyrics.)
The last two songs on the record are ballads with much more straightforward rhythms and structures. The first of the two is the one that really stands out to me, with its simple but emotional electric guitar leading the way. As a comedown from the manic energy of the preceding tracks, it sort of reminds me of Modest Mouse’s “Little Motel”, and it has a similar potential to be a single that shows you a markedly different side of the band’s personality. The moody piano chords and lonely lyrics establish that a man has a heavy soul in the verse, but as the chorus picks up, he admits that he’s sort of making an island of himself, and he finds the courage to ask for help. It’s the antidote to “I Am a Rock” in terms of how a man deals with his problems. It’s certainly more in line with how I prefer to deal with them, despite my occasional introverted tendencies that can turn up at the worst times. That’s probably why I relate to the song so much.
10. Live That Long
The closing track has the most relaxed vibe of anything on the album, with its light rhythm, easygoing melody, and bare-bones acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies, softly carrying the listener through the final minutes of the record. I would say that the lyrics are more descriptive here than they are in “Islands”, as a man comes to terms with his own mortality during some sort of a life-changing journey, and comes out of it with a sort of “seize the day” mentality because he knows he’s not gonna be around forever. It’s a gently uplifting note to close the album on, but I don’t really get drawn into this one the way I did with “Islands”. To me it seems to fall short of the band’s potential now that I’ve heard them craft so many interesting soundscapes. It doesn’t sound exactly like the obligatory acoustic track that so many other bands put at the end of their records, but I find myself wishing for a little more color to its melody, or a little more sonic layering in its background. As closing statements go, this one’s a bit anemic.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Such Small Scenes $1.25
14 Faces $1
Painting (Masterpiece) $1.75
Puerto Cabezas, NI $1.25
Tap Water Drinking $.75
Malt Liquor $.50
Live That Long $.50
Danny Miller: Vocals, guitars
Max Harwood: Drums, production
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: