Music often has a way of finding that sweet spot – songs can circle an emotional wound and, with a vocal cry here or an instrumental break there, really make it sting.
In a way, this is what Brooklyn noise-rock duo Talk Normal do throughout their second album, Sunshine. In both production and songwriting, the pair expertly pinpoint the worst of our discomfort and pain. These moments of Talk Normal’s approach is to find a beat that rubs right into that wound, and then dig in relentlessly by repeating it ad nauseum.
This can, as Sunshine shows, result in abrasive, cathartic, and ultimately successful songwriting. The sonic world of Talk Normal, which is led primarily by singers and instrumentalists Sarah Register and Andrya Ambro, is cavernous and subterranean: spattering, droning beats resound like ritual chants, and it’s not difficult to imagine getting lost in the lo-fi mire. Fortunately, for Talk Normal, melody emerges as a guiding light: in Bad Date, for instance, Register and Abro salvage a potentially tedious guitar-drums-bass pattern with an almost Clash-like vocal line, crafting a truly primeval punk slow-burner.
And primeval may not be too far off. Throughout Sunshine, Talk Normal use pop sensibilities to keep their instrumental primitivism above ground. In the title track, tribal live drum patterns morph hypnotically into a dance groove. Similarly, in Hot Water Burns, Register and Ambro chant in unison a set of strange instructions about (among other things) staying in time with the world and going to a prom, over heartbeat-like thumping.
The effect, like much of the album, is that of a pagan incantation for the twentysomethings of 2013. Not only do Talk Normal’s primitive beats suggest the origins of today’s more complex sounds, but they also provide one possible answer to the trending theme of detachment and numbness in much of contemporary music (propagated as much by the likes of Real Estate’s suburban rock as by The Weeknd’s emotionally disconnected R&B). That is to say, real feeling on Talk Normal’s Sunshine is inevitable: it is drilled, scraped, and ground into the ear, causing at the very least a physical annoyance at its sonic rigour.
When it works, this effect is cleansing: in Cover, dizzying, pounding drums, a rich church organ, and often atonal crooning knead at the proverbial knot so hard it dissolves; Shot This Time’s ominous military shuffle and shrieking, distorted vocals purge via over-exposure.
When it doesn’t, though, the effect is grating. Whereas the talk-singing elsewhere is just unintentionally wrong enough, on songs like XO it is too wrong, too jarring: the song drops in and out over a chugging track so messily it can’t quite pinpoint the wound it wants to sting and ends up stinging all over. Album opener Lone General too scatters its war-monger drumrolls and shout-sung dialogues too chaotically to achieve a genuine feeling.
Furthermore, on album closer Hurricane, in what sounds like an attempt to create the ambience of a pre-flood emergency, Talk Normal effectively crosses the line from songwriting into organized noise. Of course, this is a line the band walks throughout Sunshine – but it is Talk Normal’s ability to stay behind it that set the album up for success, and the moments of disorganization that keep it from completely taking off.
On Sunshine, Talk Normal prove their ability to look back at the no-wave of yesteryear and make what is essentially contemporary tribal music, songs for the 21st century ritual sacrifice. With a little less mess, and a little more hook, the band might find some truly zealous followers.