Julien Baker – Little Oblivions Album Review

Matador Records – 2021

It’s overwhelming to think of how much the world has changed since Julien Baker’s sophomore record Turn Out The Lights. Starting out tied to the contemporary American emo scene of the 2010’s, Baker along with her contemporaries Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus have all moved past their slowcore, quaint indie folk origins and created instrumentally rich records full that have propelled their careers forward. 

A phrase floating around on Twitter before this album came out was “depression, but with drums” and if i’m being honest, Little Oblivions fits that description nicely. There is of course a lot more depth to it than that but the added percussion, especially on tracks like “Bloodshot” and “Ringside” make you wonder what Baker’s music would have been like had this been the norm from the start? The percussion ranges from hard hitting acoustic snare beats and cymbals to minimalistic loops that you feel like were added in with painstaking attention to detail. 

Opener “Hardline” blasts your eardrums with a multitude of vibrant instrumentation choices, coupled with Baker’s acceptance of regression and struggles with addiction in the lyrics, making this a strong track to set off the album. It’s the first gut punch of many on Little Oblivions, with lyrics like “I’m telling my own fortune, something I cannot escape, I can see where this is going, but I can’t find the brake”. On her first release Sprained Ankle she claimed that she wished she could write songs about anything other than death, and even if it’s not always literally about death, Little Oblivions in a way has become a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

However, the expectations ‘Hardline’ sets for the rest of the record are hard to top. When Baker relied solely on her guitar and subtle ornamentations in her previous work, this made her songs a lot more memorable. In this case, it feels like there’s almost too much going on with Little Oblivions for tracks to always necessarily stand out on their own. “Faith Healer” and “Repeat” are the biggest departures from Baker’s sound, and despite some hard hitting, self deprecating lines, the by the numbers indie instrumentation becomes more of a distraction than enhancing the listening experience. The gospel inspired backing vocals on “Favor” provided by her Boygenius bandmates work well in a more stripped back context, even if it’s because the acoustic guitar lead is reminiscent of early Elliott Smith. 

Case in point, “Song in E” sees Baker reaching almost cinematic heights with lavish piano notes, each key hit with further deliberation than the last. It doesn’t need a full backing ensemble to get its point across and would feel unnecessary if this were the case. She holds nothing back expressing this desire for self punishment and validation through that rather than whoever she’s hurt giving her nothing in return, even if from the outside that seems like the mature option; “I wish you’d hurt me, it’s the mercy I can’t take.” 

Fans who wanted a fuller experience of Baker’s blunt autobiographical ventures will have a lot to sink their teeth into on Little Oblivions, alongside being able to channel cynical viewpoints and criticisms of herself into a form of empowerment rather than self pity or cringe. For the most part Baker is strongest when the instrumentation is minimal as too many of the songs on here don’t quite hit the same consistency of quality, despite the earnest songwriting. This is her biggest sounding album yet, but doesn’t always manage to make a lasting impression.

Lucy Dacus releases new single “Thumbs”

Photo by Marin Leong

Lucy Dacus has shared new single “Thumbs”, a live favourite that was originally written in Autumn 2018. The new heartbreaking single features just Dacus’ swaying vocals over a distant synth pad as she tells the story of helping a friend to move on from a past lover. It’s emotionally fuelled and you can feel it in every corner of the song, with Dacus masterfully placing you in that moment with the weight of it all washing over you with the wind samples.

Speaking on the new single Dacus said:

Like most songs I write, I wasn’t expecting it and it made me feel weird, almost sick. It tells the story of a day I had with a friend during our freshman year of college, a significant day, but not one that I had thought of for years. I started playing it live a month or so later during the boygenius tour after Phoebe and Julien encouraged me to. I knew I wanted a long time to get used to playing it since it made me feel shaky, so I ended sets with it for about half the shows I played in 2019. Before I played it, I would ask the audience to please not record it, a request that seems to have been respected, which I’m grateful for.

Listen to the new song below.

Julien Baker shares new single “Hardline”

Photo by Emily Gardner for Vanyaland

Julien Baker has shared new single “Hardline” along with an accompanying music video directed by Joe Baughman. This follows on from “Faith Healer” which was released in October . Both songs will appear on Baker’s upcoming album Little Oblivions set to be released on February 26th via Matador Records. Pre-order here.

Watch the new video below.

Introducing: Maeve Aickin

Too often does music become oversaturated with huge levels of production and plastic sounding instrumentation that the core element of a song becomes lost. Maeve Aickin does everything but that. With just a guitar, piano and some vocals Aickin has graciously crafted a collection personal stories of trying to gain control over change as she became alienated from her body following a diagnosis of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrom. The result is her intimately rich debut album Waiting Rooms, released via Corkscrew Records yesterday. Written between 2018 – 2020 and recorded at the start of lockdown with a bunch of borrowed equipment, Aickin has created an album that is both influenced and fresh. With a sound that reminds of the early Angel Olsen Strange Cacti/ Halfway Home era, it’s a duality of hazy and vibrant movements. Sparkling and distant guitars glide around the soundscape as Aickin sings with both passion and restrain, letting out just enough for you to hear the deep emotions buried beneath. We spoke to Maeve ahead of the release of her debut album to learn a bit more about the Minneapolis based singer, and what she’s all about.

What drew you to music and how did you get into it?

The way that songwriters are able to tell stories in multiple dimensions is probably what first drew me into music. I loved country as a kid, and Bonnie Raitt was (and is) one of my favorite performers. “Too Long at the Fair” is a forever song for me; those first couple of lines, “Jesus Christ, wept and died / I guess he went off to heaven” are indelible in my mind. That melancholy yet simultaneously comforting story is told through pristine lyricism coupled with such precise instrumentation and production. At the end of the day, I just love storytelling, so I think it makes sense that “Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens is what got me into more independent music. I heard “Chicago” for the first time in sixth grade and I felt like I was listening to something I had never quite heard before. I saved up to buy the album on iTunes, and the rendering of those quintessential American stories in full color, intimated with such an exacting brush, forced me to pay attention to everything. For the first time I was researching individual lyrics and poring over artist interviews to try to find significance within every syllable. And of course, sometimes you just write a line because it’s a good rhyme. But that wasp in “Palisades” was a symbol I obsessed over for years. I wouldn’t be surprised if I wrote a dissertation about that song.

What’s the creative process behind a song?

I don’t think that I’ve ever written a guitar part or melody before writing lyrics. I have great respect for folks who are able to do that, but it’s just not how my brain works yet. Usually I accumulate phrases and through the serendipity of tracing experiences together they start to become songs. Sometimes it’s sort of a sneeze that I write in one go then refine and sharpen once I’ve had some time away from the experience; that’s what happened with “Harriet” and “Elsewhere.” With “Temple,” it took me a much longer time to figure out what those words meant to me, to position myself within the ethos of the song. The first verse was a joke that I wrote after finishing my Psych homework. Most of the song was nonsense for a while, just hung lopsidedly around the chorus idea, which I stole from my middle school journal, and then I passed this place of worship that was literally dug out of the ground in the middle of a field. The image was so resonant for me in a sort of ineffable way. I realize that part of songwriting is self-mythologizing, and projecting yourself onto your surroundings. That temple does not mean anything in and of itself, but in the song, it means what I externalize onto it and then present as a given through narration. Even as I recorded “Temple” for the album I knew that it was true to my experiences but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. And then, a couple weeks after finishing tracking, I was diagnosed with OCD. It was sort of a funny and reassuring moment because I thought “oh, that’s what the song is about!”

Your songs tend to focus on a more simplistic sound, just vocals and guitar/ piano. Is there any particular reason for this?

The boring but true answer is that those are what I had access to. My family moved countries near the beginning of the pandemic, so I didn’t have access to my acoustic guitar or any kind of percussion. Since I wrote most of the songs on an electric guitar it made sense to record them on that instrument, but I definitely think there is space within Waiting Rooms to expand. Someday I hope to have access to a synth and mess around with its capabilities, and on the second LP I definitely want a more spacious sound. But for this project, I hope that the writing is strong enough to transcend the simplicity of the instrumentation. It might not be, and that’s okay, but at the very least it’s a good capsule of where I was at while writing and recording it.

Who are some of your biggest influences?

Aaron Weiss, Lianne La Havas, Pianos Become the Teeth, and Adrianne Lenker are big influences in terms of songwriting. I remember listening to Big Thief for the first time and hearing “Real Love.” I thought, like, “I didn’t know that you could say that!” Lenker is just so crushingly honest in her writing. It’s brutal, but comforting at the same time to hear someone giving voice to the thoughts that consume you. Phoebe Bridgers does something similar where she articulates these incredibly dark, impressionistic thoughts and then is able to joke about them. There are a bunch of really dumb jokes with myself on the record, and even if I’m the only one who ends up enjoying them, I like lightening the heaviness of the subject matter with humor. Anjimile is another artist who I’ve become obsessed with in the last year. They have such a singular voice as a writer, and their skill with the guitar is virtuosic; they can articulate these deep and urgent ideas just across the fretboard.

You said you wanted to start playing music after you saw Julien Baker live, what does this moment mean to you?

I worry that I talk about this moment too much, but it really is the reason why I taught myself guitar. Seeing someone so full of conviction, someone with such magnitude and poise launch her voice out to us transformed me. She gave such a generous and graceful performance. And to witness her do this while wearing a rainbow flag guitar strap, maybe it’s cheesy, but I saw myself. I felt boundless. I thought, “I could do that too.” Maybe not as well, maybe not to the same effect, but I could try. My loftiest aspiration is to write something that makes someone else feel the way that “Rejoice” makes me feel.

If you could be a support act for any artists who would it be and why?

Maybe Moses Sumney just so that I could watch him perform. His recent Afropunk gig was so captivating and thoughtful. He obviously writes stunning music, but his understanding of performance as a discipline, his creativity and ingenuity, it blows my mind. I guess in that respect it would be terrifying to open for him because I can’t do anything close to what he accomplishes as a performer. I’d also selfishly love to open for Soul Glo; I’ve been blasting their new EP all weekend and want to see it played live so bad. I’m realizing this is less a list of artists I want to open for and more a list of artists I want to see in concert.

Favourite concert you’ve been to?

I saw Charly Bliss at 7th Street Entry when they were on the Young Enough tour and it went so hard. Eva Hendricks is a riveting, lightning in a bottle performer. Boiling it down to just her energy might be minimizing the amount of work she puts into performing live, but I felt like there was nowhere in the world she wanted to be more than on that stage singing with us.

Favourite show you’ve played?

I had a dream that I was a member of boygenius, so that completely imagined concert probably takes the cake.

What will it be like playing that first show once shows are allowed again?

I think just being around other people who love the same thing I do will be wild. While I have a deep appreciation for artists who are putting on virtual shows, the energy of being in a room, whether you’re playing or watching, where everyone just loves music is preternatural. It feels kind of like the best church services; everyone is on the same page and they just want to celebrate a common love. 

Any future musical plans?

I’m writing the second LP right now. I have no idea when it will be done or when it will be recorded or even how it will be recorded, but I’m stoked because this is the first time I am consciously writing a record. In its infancy, Waiting Rooms was just songs I was writing because I didn’t know what else to do with that weight. Eventually I became aware of the reoccurring themes and started writing with the intent of creating a body of work, but I’m taking the opposite approach with this project. It’s kind of forest instead of trees. I know what the overarching concept is, and now I’m starting to home in on sub-ideas within that concept and trying to define my relationships to them. This is much more immediate, but I also have a virtual gig on November 29th through an organization called High Plateau Productions, and I’m launching a music blog in January.

Where would you like to be in a year’s time?

I graduate high school this year, so I’m hoping to go to college next year. I really don’t know what I want to be doing otherwise; hopefully playing shows, organizing, reading. However trite it may be, I take a pretty one-day-at-a-time approach to my life. It’s that Eliot line that I realize has been quoted to death, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” While I think for Prufrock it’s a reflection of his discontentment, his neuroses, for me it’s a positive thing. Predictability is an unsung quality.

If people want to find out more about you, where should they go? 

My music is on Bandcamp, Spotify, and Apple Music. You can find me @maeveaickin on Twitter and Instagram. Links to my music and gigs can all be found there. 

Julien Baker announces new album Little Oblivions and shares new single

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Julien Baker has announced her newest album Little Oblivions which is set to be released February 26th via Matador. This is the follow up to 2017’s Turn Out The Lights. She has also shared the first single from the album titled “Faith Healer” with an accompanying video.

Speaking about the new song Baker said:

“Put most simply, I think that “Faith Healer” is a song about vices, both the obvious and the more insidious ways that they show up in the human experience. I started writing this song 2 years ago and it began as a very literal examination of addiction. For awhile, I only had the first verse, which is just a really candid confrontation of the cognitive dissonance a person who struggles with substance abuse can feel—the overwhelming evidence that this substance is harming you, and the counterintuitive but very real craving for the relief it provides. When I revisited the song I started thinking about the parallels between the escapism of substance abuse and the other various means of escapism that had occupied a similar, if less easily identifiable, space in my psyche.

There are so many channels and behaviors that we use to placate discomfort unhealthily which exist outside the formal definition of addiction. I (and so many other people) are willing to believe whomever—a political pundit, a preacher, a drug dealer, an energy healer—when they promise healing, and how that willingness, however genuine, might actually impede healing.”

Earlier in the years Baker also appeared on Boygenius bandmate, Phoebe Bridgers standout sophomore album Punisher, read our review here.

Watch the new video below.