With ‘80s nostalgia in full effect, the indie rock landscape has become increasingly synthetic. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon, Baltimore’s Snail Mail has doubled down on emotive guitar noodling as the core instrument of the style. The project centers around 19-year-old guitarist-singer Lindsey Jordan, who enhances her demure slowcore with theoretical depth. Having laid her stylistic groundwork with two EPs, debut LP Lush elaborates on her lo-fi aesthetic with improved production and heightened instrumental involvement.
Snail Mail’s style is compelling to its core, with the reserved technicality of Jordan’s classically informed approach proving just as interesting as her somber vocals. Opener “Pristine” showcases her musicality right off the bat. She moves the root interval of one chord so that she can gradually layer modulations based on the song’s dynamics. Drummer Ray Brown and bassist Alex Bass spotlight their intuitive arrangement as well, shifting their rhythms to match the song’s distinct sectional delineation. This attention to minutiae makes otherwise straightforward garage rock cuts like “Speaking Terms” a multifaceted experience as harmonic texture interchanges with a straightforward rock groove and spacious halftime.
Lush’s charm stems from its colorful expression within intimate parameters. “Full Control” and “Let’s Find an Out” may not crack three minutes, but Snail Mail keeps them remarkably tasteful. The former track’s mid-tempo emo rock finds its footing thanks to Brown’s tactful switches from rim clicks and hi-hat splashes to cymbal crescendos and well-placed fills, but the latter strips down to just Jordan and her guitar. As she capitalizes on her underlying complexity with skeletal percussive support, her lyrics paint a vivid picture of her comeuppance as a young artist attempting her first U.S. tour straight out of high school.
Though sometimes informed by youthful misadventures, Jordan’s storytelling carries a disarming aura of harsh reality and believable passion. “Heat Wave” takes a particularly dismal turn as Jordan grapples with an ill-fated midsummer relationship, comparing the lyrics to “puking on paper.” Flaring guitar leads and nuanced tambourine bolster her words as the track’s jangle-pop foundation gives way to a fuzzy guitar solo. Synchronized band hits and abrupt dynamic shifts give many cuts on this album a deceptively light-hearted feel, but Jordan reveals the true breadth of her emoting reaches its full potential when she slows down to confront her pain head-on.
“Stick” comes as the album’s most gut-wrenching offering. Over a dreary 6/8 beat, a heartbreaking tale unfolds about sleepless nights wondering about an old flame. The trio reveals how dynamic it can become within its limited instrumentation, with Jordan’s ascending melody guiding a rapturous crescendo of massive chords, washing cymbals and impassioned singing. Snail Mail can sound so expansive with so little at its disposal.
The methodical modulations of “Deep Sea” remain incredibly immersive with only the lone embellishment of a droning French horn. Jordan’s confidence in her style allows her to avoid overcompensating with overblown arrangements. “Golden Dream” would sound like any other reverb-soaked guitar rock outfit if it wasn’t for Jordan’s expert weaving of chord values and intuitive song structures. She doesn’t have to follow trends, because her skill transcends the mainstream in favor of unforgettable progressions and haunting lyrics.
As the dreamlike atmosphere of solo guitar ballad “Anytime” draws the album to a close, Snail Mail’s personal an artistic resolution emerges from 39 minutes of growing pains. “I’ve gotten to know quiet and still for you anytime,” Jordan sings, staring tragedy and uncertainty in the face and ready to establish herself as a slowcore guitar hero and a spellbinding lyricist.
Follow writer Max Heilman at Twitter.com/madmaxx1995.