words by nate wagner
Perhaps more consistently and cleverly than any other type of media, music has a way of sneaking up on you in the middle of your day. This is most evident in those moments when you’re minding your own business and a tune makes the hyper-speed jump from background noise to unsuppressable ear worm. For those particularly alluring melodies (and, I suppose, for the particularly annoying ones too), the desire to know what’s playing temporarily incapacitates every other drive. Thankfully, there’s an app for that (and, apparently, a TV show starring the app . From time to time, however, the app doesn’t provide the answer, and you, the listener, are confronted with the maddening finitude of user-driven databases.
This happened to me in 2013 while setting up for a show: I heard a tune over the public address system so dreamy and captivating that I just about bounced my phone off of a rack tom trying to bring up the app. No match, the app told me, so I went over the sound guy to ask who it was. “See Through Dresses,” he said, “from Nebraska.” They had apparently played at the venue a few weeks prior, and he had become an instant fan after hearing their music. I instantly became one, too. But, unfortunately, as the night unfolded, the sights and sounds of the gig forced my new discovery from memory until…
Fast-forward four years, and See Through Dresses’ Horse of the Other World (Tiny Engines) hits my inbox. Instant recall, accompanied by the enthusiasm of rediscovering something wonderful you’ve forgotten entirely. Followed by hesitation. What if I’ve grown too tired of this sound? After all, hearing a dream pop tune in public is no longer refreshing the way it was in 2013 – just walk into an Urban Outfitters, where the focus-grouped indie du jour has grown decidedly more reverb-heavy.
One of the greatest gifts a record can bestow upon a listener is a temporary reprieve from cynicism, and I’m grateful to Horse of the Other World for doing just that for me. In just under 40 minutes, See Through Dresses tease out exactly what makes shoegaze, dream pop, and most fundamentally, guitar pop such a powerful vehicle for storytelling and catharsis. Playing hide-and-seek with their influences, the band bring together a variety of contrasting musical moments under one dreamy, expansive umbrella. With the scooped-mids guitar leads on “Catacombs” recalling The Radio Dept.’s Lesser Matters and the vocal melody to the chorus of “Light in August” fashioned in the image Slowdive’s iconic “Alison,” See Through Dresses show off their knowledge of shoegaze and dream pop classics.
Even more impressive, and the source of the band’s unique sound, is their connection to genres and styles outside of the inner dream pop circle. “Lucy’s Arm” recalls the heyday of 1990s post-grunge underground labels like Jade Tree and DeSoto with its pulsing guitars and relentless drumming (Juno’s “Venus on 9th Street” comes to mind). Opening cut “Diamonds” is carried by a new wave synth groove that would’ve made Orchestral Manoeuvres shudder with glee, while “Pretty Police” takes cues from contemporary indie stalwarts Alvvays. The titular “Horse of the Other World” starts off with the kind of emotive, tender vocal performance that made Elliott Smith the voice of a generation before it finishes in a blaze of synth leads and drum machine hits that wouldn’t feel too out of place on a hardstyle mix. Never overbearing or derivative, the band (along with co-producer Ben Brodin) have fashioned a musical tribute to decades of pop so tactful and immense as to one day deserve mention in the shoegaze canon.
Most profound of all is the manner in which the quartet weaves a narrative thread from song to song. Jumping from the wistful to the gut-wrenching, from the sublime to the haunting, the band slowly unveil a tale of lost loves. The suffering, regret, and empathy primary songwriters and vocalists Sara Bertuldo and Mathew Carroll detail across the ten album tracks is undeniably personal – even the offhand allusion to Chlodio, erstwhile King of the Salian Franks, seems more cryptic and intimate than strictly historical. But, refracted through the shimmering ether of guitars and synthesizers, the diaristic becomes the universal. All that remains to anchor these stories to their authors are the names: Christine, Steven, Aurora, Charlie, Lucy, June… And in the glow and the haze and the lights and the reverb, even these last remnants of the personal morph indistinguishably with the listener’s own sorrows. It’s cathartic and haunting, all at once.
‘Horse Of The Other World’ is out now, via Tiny Engines
You can buy it here