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Stove - "Is Stupider" | Album Review

by Hannah Liuzzo

Several months ago when talk started to buzz about Ovlov’s Steve Hartlett peeling off to do a solo project, I stumbled on the short “Kspill’s Couch” video/interview of Hartlett performing as his new moniker, Stove. Hartlett sits alone in a horse barn on a hay bale wearing a hoodie with the drawstrings pulled so tight it covers his eyes. He plays an acoustic guitar and performs a song called "Liverwurst" for an audience of two horses, followed by a short and comically useless interview at the end that reveals almost nothing. So I watched this video, I shrugged, and I thought, “…Huh.” 

But something about it stuck with me—I don’t know what it was—the guitar melody in the verses maybe, or maybe the tenderness with which the horses received the music (probably not that though, but maybe). A couple days later, I found myself digging through the internet to relocate the goddamn horse video with the dude from Ovlov getting his face eaten by his hoodie and I was like, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing?” But then I listened to it again, and I listened again, and it started to make sense. Something about it was infectious and I didn’t know what. I bookmarked the video in a folder titled “Yes” and returned to it daily.
After a half-year of anticipation and only a slight trace of what to expect, Hartlett has finally released Stove’s debut album, Is Stupider. Written and recorded in its entirety by Hartlett alone, Is Stupider possesses the same intangible ability to slowly creep into your being without your knowing and kind of just stay there. It’s the work of a songwriter whose trust in his aesthetic instincts and taste renders a product that will affect a receptive listener on a profound and anthem-like level. Is Stupider is a complex but human, emotionally adventurous experience in 3 distinct “chapters”, all cleverly and ironically wrapped in a sense of humor that plays on theme of stupidity. 

PROLOGUE: STUPIDER
The record opens with a 22-second hilariously short could-be rock anthem called “Stupider”. Borrowing from his already established vocabulary of sound and texture pioneered with Ovlov, Hartlett sings a catchy melody over a huge foundation of sludgy distorted guitar and a bendy lead riff, classic 4-on-the-floor drums and bass holding hands, proclaiming, “Don’t know who I am, so I act like who I’m with”. And then as soon as you start to feel it, as soon as you subscribe to the sound, it’s over.  22 seconds, that’s it, moving on.

CHP. I: STUPID > WET FOOD > DUSTY TREE > DUSTY WEATHER
Alternating between drive from melody in the lead guitar and insistent every-beat-is-accented stomping from the rhythm section, “Stupid”‘s most elegant moments lie in the verses where Hartlett’s vocals float by in unison with the guitar part, and in its deconstruction when, after building into a massive almost shoegazey wall of noise, all of it peels away to just an acoustic guitar repeating a modest 2-note figure. “Wet Food” and “Dusty Tree” are both melody heavy with memorable choruses and cleverly poetic lyrics (Hard to fix the gutter when you wait to see the rain/Don’t you feel a bit insane?). “Dusty Weather” (my personal favorite) is the first track on the record with clean tone guitar. It’s got a movie soundtrack kind of feel to it but also a sense of conflict—it’s sweet and unassuming until the last minute or so when it explodes into a huge fuzz cloud with a lead guitar melody you want to live inside.  And then out of nowhere, it just dies; it’s just over, abrupt and unexpected. End CHP I.

CHP II: AGED HYPE > EX-PUNK > STUPIDEST > PLASTIC
"Aged Hype" is a total feel-good track, energetic and fun, complete with mention of summer weather, underwear, and “better times”, which makes “Ex-Punk” and “Stupidest” especially interesting as follow ups. “Ex-Punk” and “Stupidest” feel like the record’s center of conflict; both have a stirring sense of panic and frustration, with statements like “Fuck my own morals today”, and on “Stupidest”, a relentlessly urgent pulsing, entirely 16th note feel that only offers a couple brief moments of relief. Finally on “Plastic”, a comforting outro built around melody closes the segment with a sense of optimism, suggesting that hey, maybe everything will be okay.

CHP III: JOCK DREAMS > LOWT-IDE FINS > DUMBOY
“Jock Dreams”! A windows down, shout the lyrics with your friends and air-guitar-the-riffs-even-when-you’re-driving hit single. Phew, we needed that. Highlights: when guest Sam Rosenberg (Two Inch Astronaut) shouts, “AND I HATE YOU” after the chorus, and the guitar/bass riff in the outro that will actually take over your life. But soon after the high, after the vacation, reality sets in with “Lowt-Ide Fins”. Verses with stereo clean guitar doubled by acoustic guitar happen over steady time and bleed into a chorus where the backbeat drops out, creating space for this beautiful and compelling vocal melody to just tug at you. The last chorus builds into a variation of itself where Hartlett sings a syncopated melody, melancholy and apologetic. It lends itself as an emotional primer for the record’s epic closer, “Dumboy”, aka the sad rock anthem of the year. Without a touch too much of melodrama, “Dumboy” and all of its 9 minutes of glory essentially just moves slowly between 2 chords over steady time, a formula that, 5 minutes deep, makes you wonder HOW it could possibly still have your attention, but its commanding trancelike feel leads you to a HUGE 3 minute guitar solo: a closing statement of intent, desperation, virtuosity…

A movement away from the obvious nod to Dinosaur Jr. and 90s nostalgia attempted by Ovlov, Stove’s Is Stupider straddles multiple genres and shows us the clear and unobstructed vision of Hartlett’s music, full of thought and intent and masterfully executed. Though Hartlett’s influences are distinguishable and admitted, Is Stupider manages to carve its own aesthetic groove that can probably only be followed (with grace) by Hartlett himself. If you’re ready for it, if you’re in need of it, Is Stupider will mark an era, will become synonymous with the smell of fall, a sense of being understood, both now and when you return to it weeks or years later. One of my favorite releases of the year, Is Stupider is a rare gem worthy of many, many listens.