by Josh Ginsberg (@world0fdarkness)
At the end of the last decade, there was a wave of bands that looked like typical indie rock bands—thin white boys with guitars, drums, striped t-shirts and button-downs—whose drive to subvert the traditional boundaries of rock music helped to define the musical moment. Some of those artists have since faded into oblivion and, ironically, the most celebrated among them have constitute indie music’s nouveau old guard: Deerhunter, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective among others. From 2007-2009, critics loudly decreed these artists’ albums as the vanguard of music in the 21st century but in the span it took them to follow-up their classic LPs, critical enthusiasm for this movement waned. Critics shifted their attention to reverb-soaked garage pop pastiche and the big box poptimism of an emergent ‘indie R&B’ brand.
In the years after the first class of Williamsburg experimentalism fell out of vogue, Brooklyn’s Zula arose: one of a small set of New York-based artists who were able to further the musical inventiveness and technical prowess of that bygone generation with an additional emphasis on the pulse and textural nuance that poptimism brought forwards. On Grasshopper, Zula’s first full-length, full-band recording since 2013’s This Hopeful, the Terepka cousins successfully sublimated their “post-punk” and “art-rock” influences and created a sophisticated and highly palatable product. Dense, socially aware, and imbued with palpable anxiety, Grasshopper showcases Zula’s experimentation in several regards, from its musical interplay to the content of its lyrics, which boldly seek to engage with the moral and social crises of our time.
Despite the placid sound of its opening vocalization, it doesn’t take long for the tension of Grasshopper to manifest. On “Speeding Towards the Arctic,” Henry Terepka finds himself “worried,” “aching, tired;” reckoning with the uncomfortable reality that, in the scheme of things, he’s “lucky for real.” As the eight-minute opener spirals into tightening concentric circles, its lyrics grow increasingly visceral. Terepka offers to “empty [his] sores so you can sell it for more” and “piss on [his] clothes to give you hours.” Despite the inscrutable nature of these lines, Henry’s invocation of the image of someone suckling at him so he can “make it all safe for the ones I love” clearly establishes the sense that he desires to better the world, even at his own expense. This tension is explained, in part, by a conversation Henry and Nate Terepka conducted with Stereogum just prior toGrasshopper’s release, wherein they describe the musical and conceptual frameworks they operated within to develop Grasshopper’s songs. The Terepka cousins identify their position in the world’s social strata as “comfortable and uneasy”; though they are able to “[enjoy] the pleasures of our world” they are “filled with anxiety about inequality, decline and the illusion of stability.” This thread is clear and present on “Speeding Towards the Arctic” and persists throughout the album, which comments upon the selfishness and materialism central to our culture. On “Be Around,” Nate Terepka importunes his audience for mindfulness in the wake of mounting chaos. The spaces created by Grasshopper’s lyrics evoke a concern for the “hardships of others” and a desire to “trickle” the Terepka’s perceived privilege “down” to others. Zula’s acknowledgement of their own privilege provides a refreshing counter-narrative to the broke boho routine that proliferates throughout DIY scenes. (Zula seems to critique this sensibility on the opener’s bridge: “What a waste to look ahead / find me poor just to settle my rent.”) Even if Zula’s statement to Stereogum feels a bit on the nose, their desire to push listeners towards a greater awareness of their privilege is laudable.
In their aforementioned conversation with Stereogum, Zula also spoke to their sonic ambitions for Grasshopper. There is no disputing the fact they met their goals in this department. Musically, they strove to “create…hypnotic rituals that can reframe…the passage of time” and accurately evoke the sense of existing in “suspended states.” From early singles like 2011’s “Grind is a Shuttle,” Zula has demonstrated mastery of the “hypnotic ritual.” The grooves of Grasshopper are entrancing, fortified by the extremely strong interplay between the band’s members, and transport listeners to distinct headspaces. Throughout the album Pablo Eluchan’s drums, which sound like they would be at home on a modern jazz album, determine listeners’ heart rates. The transition from “Basketball” through “Dogs Wake Up” sees Zula’s signature motorik lock into arhythmic chaos as Nate and Henry Terepka’s guitars clash—a wriggling funk line struggling against the abrasion of staccato quarter notes, before ending in as bucolic a locale as Zula can conjure. The low-end piano melodies that reinforce Noga Shefi’s bass on “Fuck This” and “Getting Warm” at once evoke SpaceGhostPurrp and an intimate parlor performance. Zula’s approach to vocal arrangement provides one of the album’s most subtle and enjoyable dynamic forces. Closer “Lucy Loops” layers exquisite, subtle harmonies on its verses, only to tug the carpet out from under the listener when Henry’s voice is heard in isolation, with striking clarity on its choruses.
“Getting Warm” is Grasshopper’s summer jam. As lyrically dense as it is rhythmically inviting, Zula creates a distinctive sonic atmosphere rich with detail. The rhythm section sways a little as they pivot between the two poles that ground the song. Beginning with a plea not to “suffer the kind of words / your age group offers you now,” Henry sketches out a character familiar to the inhabitants of any major American city: “some insufferable guy who climbed and stepped on people’s heads,” “ever asking for more.” Amid a backdrop of “stressed-out techies” “eyeball art” and, if my hearing permits, “odd pieces of porn,” Zula captures the frenetic, “insatiable” ethos of young urban professionalism, a fixture in the lives of any New Yorker, Bostonian or resident of the Bay Area. When the staccato piano hammering of the intro returns and light, fuzzy synths spill into the space of the track, you feel the urban landscape fall away. Lyrics describing “a swing,” a “path” and the “forest floor” lead you into the calm warmth of nature, despite the textural clutter of percussive guitars. Even though Zula’s cultural critique is at its most trenchant on “Getting Warm,” the song’s evocation of the tactile experience of feeling the “concrete getting warm” explodes past the album’s politics. Zula’s transmits the sensation of summer by evoking the feeling of warm concrete beneath your palms, putting into words a feeling that every listener has experienced but few have articulated into words. Hearing this lyric, the listener feels what the band feels. Bouncing as it does between the two chords upon which it is built, the lack of traditional musical resolution on “Getting Warm” achieves the psychedelic sensation of capturing existence in the “suspended state” that Nate and Henry Terepka strove to create on Grasshopper.