Symbol Soup is the indie-folk project of musician Michael Rea, and their new record: Slow Puncture is an album that can be linked to a lot of buzzwords that are popular in UK indie journalism at the moment. For one, there’s a slight roughness to the sound on this new album, with too much of a clean cut recording style to call Lo-fi. There’s also a lot of quirkiness to the production throughout, but it’s played so soberly and low-profile that you could hardly call this record psychedelic or oddball, like a lot of other indie-folk artists of recent years.
However, this is not to call this album unsure of itself. I find Rea’s lyricism to be very verbose and pointed, often spilling lush and deep observations through his hushed vocal delivery. In songs like the opener: Dial-a-dream, there’s a strong sense of inner conflict within Rea’s lyrics that he layers over this warm and nostalgic instrumental.
Coming to know yourself and others seems to be the link between his observations throughout the record, mostly shown through miniscule vignettes of his memories. Dial-a-dream starts off trying to extrapolate these memories, and reach into the possibilities of what two people could make together, if the one just takes a chance on the other. It’s very daydream indie, but I do like the synth flutes and chugging rhythm that brings back memories of mid-90s children’s TV theme music, with it’s loose soothing quirkiness.
Symbol Soup can flip the tone quite easily it would seem, especially lyrics-wise, without breaking the flow of the record. Take for example: Overdressed, which centres on the importance of the authentic self when surrounded by insecure dickheads (my words, not his). The clean and crisp acoustic guitar tone is a big character element on this album, and its chipper jangling melodies always come through the mix in a cohesive and bright way.
It builds up a lot of contrast between what is said and how it sounds, with Overdressed feeling very pointed in Rea’s frustration, both in his lyrics and the thwart way he delivers them. Rea’s vocals don’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to this genre of music, but it’s delicate nature never seeming affected or contrived, and there are many moments of uniquely pretty harmonies throughout the album.
One of these moments is the album’s leading single: Airglow, which has a stoner-rock quality to its meandering guitar melodies and laidback vocal interplay between Rea and the backing vocals. The lead riff really throws me back to a time not too long ago where Mac Demarco was the leading voice in indie, but the delivery of the production and vocals stave off any fears of pastiche or homage. I find this song to be my favourite of the album, owing to it’s catchy weirdness and off-kilter rhythm in the instrumental.
Instrumentally, this is a slow and gentle record, with a few exceptions like the heavier: Appetite, which blows up the sonic space with it’s cutting lead riff and swelling drum section. It’s punchy and elegant at the same time, giving more depth to the record with it’s lyrical bluntness.
I think complaints of the album could be based in the seemingly one-note quality to it’s production and songwriting, however I do think Symbol Soup have developed a formula that they feel makes their storytelling more potent, and they enjoy using it. There is variation in this record, with a wealth of instrumental approaches like the layered sequencers on songs like Root, or even the soaring brass on Gameshow. These variations develop their formula, going just a little beyond just adding things for variation’s sake, but not too far as to call anything overly experimental.
It’s on the shorter side of an full-album length, and I did get a lot of enjoyment out of the blissful soundscapes that appear more towards the end of the record, songs like Whatever It Is, and the closer: Wishbone, with it’s wandering whistle tone melody. These songs are given time to breathe and round off a well paced record, with Rea concluding lyrically on a sea of memories that ebb and flow over himself and the abstract ‘you’ that appears throughout the album.
I can’t really place his lyrics in a sentence, but he does manage to pack so much bitter-sweetness into these one line moments, and a lot of the really good ones appear in this final track. It’s poetic and downbeat in its simplicity, but I don’t finish a listen of this record ever feeling dower, which speaks to his innate sense of balance concerning tone.
Slow Puncture is an album that has a wide appeal, and there’s a long list of artists whose fans would totally find something of them in this record. It’s downsides are few, mostly depending on how slow and folky you like your indie records to be, but seeing the rise of artists like Big Thief and Alex G, I don’t think these elements will present an issue for most people.
The biggest compliment I can pay this record is that it’s a pretty, mellow and intelligent work of music, with some very strong tracks that I left wanting to hear live. I can see a strong future for Symbol Soup discography, especially considering the more folk/country side of indie that is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. So if you want to be part of that wave, this is a good place to start listening.