Remove Your Beliefs: On the essence and imagination of Sneaks

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An old saying tells us that a camel is just a horse that was designed by committee. Sneaks isn’t a committee—in fact, it’s not even a band, but rather the nom de plume for musician Eva Moolchan—yet you might say that the new Highway Hypnosis is something like a camel. Imagine for a moment its democratic assembly by a consortium of genre representatives—a punk who demands terseness and brevity, a bubblegum pop confectioner who doles out earworm melodies, a hip-hop producer who insists on making the whole thing out of reconstituted beats, samples, and sound FX. The end result has a clear pedigree but an odd shape; it’s not hard to unspool its DNA, yet rarely does it sound much like any one of its discrete parts.

Moolchan is a DC-based singer, rapper, spoken word artist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist whose calling card is minimalism—though Highway Hypnosis proves that such things are always relative. The album clocks in at a breezy and appealing 28 minutes, modest by most metrics but more than twice the length of any previous Sneaks album. And though its songs are all assembled from humble components—voice, bass, drum machines, a smattering of samples and keyboard effects—each one feels intellectually robust and generous with imagination. The tight framing is strategic: It brings clarity and focus to Moolchan’s resourcefulness and whimsy, how her songs always abound with invention even as they feel boiled down to their barest essence.

Nowhere is Sneaks’ gift for distillation more evident than on “Holy Cow Never Saw a Girl Like Her,” which uses just Moolchan’s voice and bass to capture the raucous DIY spirit and bruising physicality of punk, condensing it into ripple after ripple of speaker-rattling low end. The song also happens to be the most extreme example of her songwriting economy; she doesn’t craft narratives so much as she conjures feelings, sketches scenes, and offers mantras to roll around in your head, absorbing their possibility and implication through sheer osmosis. You receive Sneaks’ songs in the same way you’d receive a compilation of haiku, a collection of poems by Kay Ryan, or a set of songs by Tierra Whack—as small and precious treasures, both fragmentary and complete. In the case of this song, the only lyrics Moolchan needs are the ones in the song’s title, which take an instant of ambuscading desire and preserve it in amber. It’s bottled experience; it’s stopped time.

Punk is an obvious touchstone for Moolchan’s hardcore thrift, and she returns to it more than once; check the ominous strum and crude drumming on “And We’re Off,” which marinates in minor-key menace. Yet what makes her minimalism appealing is that it never scans as Spartan or austere; she takes spare elements and multiplies them like so many fish and loaves, resulting in songs heavy with atmosphere, deceptively opulent. There’s some real production jujitsu going on, as on the hazy trance of “Saiditzoneza,” a study in dankness that builds tension from a metronome beat, multi-tracked vocals, and thick studio shimmer. And in the album-closing “Hong Kong to Amsterdam,” a jittery slice of EDM, Moolchan orchestrates a symphony of pots-and-pans beats with the same deft touch as Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bear. Give credit to Moolchan, but also to co-producers Carlos Hernandez and Tony Selzer, who open up her post-punk simplicity with new colors and textures.

Given her rhythmic propensity and her smart use of space, it’s no surprise that Moolchan gravitates toward hip-hop and dance music, and some of Highway Hypnosis’ most persuasive moments are its formal engagements with the sounds of the club. “The Way it Goes” embodies the original value proposition of hip-hop production, assembling something concrete from isolated moments; it’s all breaks and beats, stitched together with coherence and elasticity. The ethereal wash of “Cinnamon” morphs into a master class in beat dropping, while “A Lil Close” creates dense funk through a cloud of drum loops and the serpentine twist of Moolchan’s bass.

These songs are structurally and mechanically different, yet they are all winsome in the same way: They highlight an artist who understands her influences well enough to deploy them confidently and judiciously, doing a lot with a little while underscoring just how many different things a song can do. Indeed, even with their tight framing, the songs of Sneaks all find different ways to tease, riddle, and pull the rug out from under you. You may get so swept along in the tranquilizing groove of the title track—whispered chants over a trap beat—that it takes a few listens to realize that there’s a commercial for the album buried deep in the mix; by then, you’re well on your way down Moolchan’s conceptual rabbit hole. With its rickety beat, church bells, and titular mantra, “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” takes a piece of colloquial advice and turns it into something cryptic and ominous. And “Beliefs” offers the gift of deprogramming: “Remove your beliefs and start again,” Moolchan sings, another one of those mantras that begs for obsessive scrutiny. One interpretation to consider: It’s the unofficial motto for an album that delights in leaving preconceptions at the door. Throughout it, Moolchan takes up genre tropes not as binding dogma, but as building blocks and puzzle pieces—and what she assembles with them is a tiny marvel, boundless with possibility.

Take Me Back to Camp Sunshine: Bob Mould’s hopeful intentions

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It’s been a tough few years for Bob Mould, the power trio standard-bearer, college rock Founding Father, and legendary architect of Sugar and Hüsker Dü. He spent the better part of the 2000s making records that variously wrestled with middle age and the deaths of his parents—each album robust and cathartic, each one understandably introspective and glum. Finally deciding he’d endured just about enough of American life’s callous indignities, Mould decamped to Berlin where he realized just a little too late that the winters are long and grim. All of which makes it perplexing to find a brand new Bob Mould album bearing the cheerful label Sunshine Rock, with not one but four of its songs celebrating the sun in their titles. You might justifiably wonder if the famous sadsack has either finally snapped or is simply yanking our chains, a theory lent some credence by a late-album folk ditty called “Camp Sunshine,” where Mould pines for the halcyon days spent at his childhood summer camp. But its idyll is not a put-on, and neither is it a retreat into nostalgia: Rather, it heralds a real emotional sea change. Sunshine Rock is a statement of joyful intent from a man who’s made the decision to abide hope, to champion perseverance as a value unto itself, and to take up gladness and gratitude as potent all-natural mental health supplements. Mould sings these buoyant new songs not as someone who’s deluding himself, but as someone who’s weathered enough dark times to be convinced (and convincing) that brighter ones must be coming. Maybe the Camp Sunshine he sings about is a memory or maybe it’s a poetic invention, but either way it’s an oasis, a place for refuge and realignment. What these new songs suppose is: Perhaps the true Camp Sunshine is the inner Camp Sunshine.

His updated outlook comes with a rejiggered delivery vehicle; Sunshine Rock is built on the electric thrills Mould has always championed but bejeweled with a few flourishes from his new silver linings playbook. Mould’s allegiance is to rock and roll the way its framers meant it to be played, meaning short songs with clear melodies, played loud, fast, and with boisterous abandon. Here he slashes and burns through a dozen elastic, brambly earworms, rocket-fueled by the mighty wallop of the Superchunck rhythm section. It’s vivacious enough to sound like the whole thing was cut live to tape just this morning, and classicist enough that it could pass for an unearthed relic from the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. The album’s one opulent gesture is the inclusion of an 18-piece string section, appearing on select songs not so much to dramatize them as to add ballast and heft—cosmic swirl on the title track, panoramic denouement on “Western Sunset.” The orchestral festooning never distracts from the ferocity of Mould’s overdriven power pop, nor from the music’s thrum, crunch, crackle, and howl. He’s still a purveyor of premium-grade bubblegum—check “Sunny Love Song,” so breezy and buoyant and instantly memorable that it actually earns its lark of a title—but Mould’s love language is one of ragged riffs and clattering cymbals. Here he speaks it fluently, dealing out hard stuff aplenty: The pulverizing din of “Thirty Dozen Roses” makes it a headbanger’s ball, while “I Fought” is a banshee-wail punk anthem. A late-album cover of Shocking Blue’s “Send Me a Postcard” is played with enough withering, in-the-red intensity to strip the thread off a screw. Maybe this marriage of garage rock ruckus and symphonic décor is exactly what Stephen Malkmus had in mind with his admonishment to sparkle hard.

For Mould, hopefulness isn’t a feeling but an active verb, a prophetic witness that requires constant engagement and daily reaffirmation. There are hints throughout Sunshine Rock that positivity is still a bit ill-fitting for him: Listen to the tightly-coiled “What Do You Want Me to Do,” where spring-loaded resentments explode like booby traps, detonated by his venomous snarl. More reflective is “The Final Years,” an end-of-the-road memoir that could easily have slipped into the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin repertoire. Here, the singer laments his “years of misplaced rage,” and reckons with the daunting task of setting his mind to nobler things in whatever time he has left. (“What will we cherish in the final years?” he asks, clear-eyed.)  There’s a lot of fury that snakes through these songs—in “Irrational Poison,” the narrator is desperate not to drown in his own toxicity— but that just makes the declarations of open-heartedness that much more affecting; while some men just grow jaded as they make it to the top of the mountain, Mould sounds like a guy who’s seen just how much of a dead-end bitterness can be. And so “Sunshine Rock,” the album’s keynote, is the sound of clouds parting, Mould ably playing the romantic hero who swoops in on his white horse and saves the day. (“They don’t love you like I love you,” he pledges.) And in “Lost Faith,” he posits despair as a kind of waywardness, but love the lighthouse beckoning us home: “We all lose faith from time to time/ You better find your way back now.” You might call it a song of experience: The testimony of someone who’s been deep in the shit and doesn’t claim to have all the answers—but he knows enough to know hope.