by David Haynes (@shooshlord)
There’s something about beauty and fear that is often intertwined. Horror movies are often enchanting; tangible fear creates an enchanting mood. It’s hard to look away, even though at times we might want to. Music that taps into this psychological phenomenon is powerful, visceral, and endlessly captivating. Wand writes that type of music.
The Los Angeles guitar freaks are back at it again, conjuring up wicked, spooky, and absolutely incredible masterpieces. 2018’s Perfume was at the same time aggressive and beautiful. Their sonic landscape is cavernous, with seemingly no end to the layers of sound. Their newest record, Laughing Matter, sticks to their tried and true formula of writing trippy, unconventional pop songs but also offers some new sounds from an ever exploring and evolving band.
Laughing Matter opens with “Scarecrow.” We are greeted immediately with drummer Evan Burrows’ tom-heavy groove. As phased-out guitars filter in alongside Sofia Arreguin’s haunting keyboard chords, we know we are in for a journey. Vocalist/guitarist Cory Hanson sings about a scarecrow, opening the song by saying, “I made up a word that turned to flesh / Scaring all the birds back to the nest.” The plot of the lyrics, though loose, could be the premise for some type of horror movie. At the end of the song, Hanson sings, “Hung up on a pole and full of straw / We are not afraid of you no more / The crows fly down from their nests / To steal the grain you can't protect / The crows fly down and peck your face / Your eyes and hair and nose and lips.” From the start of the record, Wand are combining the horrific with the beautiful. The lyrics are genius, and the guitar work in the bridge section of the song sounds divinely inspired. Beneath all of these swirling layers, Lee Landey’s bass-lines cement the song but also are full of movement and catchy hooks if you listen close.
There’s a pastoral-turned-menacing theme throughout this record. “Xoxo” opens with Hanson saying, “Softening the grain in the mortar / Drying in the sun, choking on the water / Diggin' up the stones that you buried / X marks the spot and the O is for the ones you got.” Lines like these, combined with the haunting music, make this record so cinematic. This almost calls to mind a Mad Max-esque dystopia, full of people in masks struggling to survive among the rocks and sand. The backbone of this song is what sounds like either a keyboard or guitar chord run through a delay pedal and synced up perfectly with another perfect Burrows’ groove. As the song crescendos into layers upon layers of added textures and swelling synth sounds, Arreguin sings, “I can't believe your words / I can't believe your words / I saw it all with both eyes.” Amidst all the chaos of the song, it’s haunting to hear a soft voice sing these lines. Songs like “Xoxo” are like pastoral poetry if it was written by John Carpenter.
Wand gives us momentary relief with the soundscape “Bubble.” True to their cinematic approach, “Bubble” would fit perfectly in the moment where the hero of our desert-dystopia movie finds a flower amidst a sea of scorched earth. “High Planes Drifter” is a softer song, but the melody and the percussive sounds are other-worldly. It almost sounds like fingers tapping on a Jiffy stovetop popcorn container. With a quiet, calmer mix, the members of Wand can still find a way to create so much depth. There are some subtle keyboard notes that come in about halfway through, adding texture to the song.
Though Laughing Matter is full of masterpiece material, “Walkie Talkie” stands out as a truly fantastic song. Though I tend to think of Wand as a more experimental, heavy band, this song shows they have a firm grasp of pop melodies. This song is not unlike something that would turn up on a Foxtrot-era Wilco record, albeit weirder. Once again, the scatterbrained lyrics offer us trippy, almost scary images. Hanson sings, “I'm twisting around / And I’m talking out loud / My life eats into life / And I'll follow it down.” There’s something intensely creepy about the line “my life eats into life,” and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Once again, the line between catchy pop songs and weird psychedelic guitar jams is blurred with this band.
In the middle section of the album, the songs seem to gain momentum. “Thin Air” opens with harmonized guitar leads from Hanson and Robert Cody. Of all the songs on this record, this one sounds the most like a Radiohead song. Hanson’s soaring vocal melody is very Yorke-ish, in the best way possible. At about the halfway mark, the song crescendos. What really makes this song is Burrows’ drumming. There’s nothing particularly flashy, but the way he switches dynamics from groovy ride cymbal to big crashes and snare fills is incredible. I’m less impressed by flashy drumming these days. What’s cooler to me is when drummers get the mood and feel exactly right and Burrows is spot on in this song.
“Hare” is another soundscape that builds expectation. Some bands that try to pull off interludes and soundscapes come across as pretentious but off kilter violin and stabbing bass notes from Landey help produce a tension. That tension eventually spills into the incredible “Wonder.” This song is at times dark and brooding, and other times light and poppy. It’s a duality that Wand has nearly perfected at this point. Huge, fuzzy leads circle in and out of this song, moving us from verse to chorus. Hanson sings, “Let me put my hand on yours, love / Walk us down the razor wire / All the world's afraid of you, honey / Don't you wonder why?” This desire for mutual destruction is haunting, and yet somehow beautiful just the same.
Songs that do not follow traditional structures are always refreshing. Most of the songs on this record, minus the soundscapes, follow a relatively standard pop formula. This is not to say that these songs aren’t full of amazing or weird moments, because they absolutely are. “Evening Star” is just structurally bizarre. It begins with a noisy introduction, with bits of guitar and drums coming in and out of focus. There’s a very clean section with Hanson singing, and some beautiful guitar riffs and bass harmonics. Then, the full band kicks in for a couple minutes. After some time, it drops back down for a short time while Hanson and Arreguin do some harmonized vocalizations. The end of the song is another powerful jam with wicked, Neil Young-esque guitar solos. “Evening Star” is a wild ride, and I’m glad Wand took me on every second.
“Tortoise” is another instrumental, featuring Arreguin with some almost classical sounding piano and either Hanson or Cody playing acoustic guitar along. This song bleeds into “Rio Grande,” which might be the most beautiful song on the record. It sounds exactly as its title suggests; night driving through the Texas desert. It’s full of hooky, but calculated guitar leads, and the vocal melodies are absolutely breathtaking. There’s a bit of humor too, like when Hanson sings, “Chase an Advil, sunrise, I'm gonna piss my pants.” On a very lyrically dark and spooky record, this song feels sonically and lyrically lighter.
“Airplane” begins with a pounding, heartbeat-like drumbeat alongside a gorgeous bass line and little layers of guitar spinning in and out. It’s also one of the longer songs on the record, clocking in at 9:12. The beginning feels connected to “Rio Grande,” as if the two lovers in that song have gotten in their car and are trying to keep their eyes open on a stretch of Texas interstate. Arreguin takes the lead vocal on this one, and her lyrics are gorgeous bits of poetry. She sings, “I am almost there / As I swim at the bottom of the ocean / Like an instant rerun / From a shipwrecked shrine.” Her repeated refrains of “on an airplane ride” and the phrase “given time” are some of the most frighteningly pretty lyrics of the record. After a few rounds of these lyrics, the song descends into a long jam, with the original drumbeat returning behind a frenzied guitar solo.
Beginning with “Tortoise,” the final six songs of this record feel very connected. While there’s always a few blank seconds between each song, they feel sonically connected and intertwined. It’s akin to the “Abbey Road Suite” on side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Everything feels perfectly sequenced. If you’ve spaced out while listening, you start to wonder, “Have the songs bled into each other?” The final songs on this record are some of the best songs I have heard from an independent rock band in some time. “Lucky’s Sight” begins with noisy guitar feedback and an off-kilter organ lead from Arreguin. It’s a swirling song, totally focused on texture as opposed to precise playing.
“Wonder (II)” starts off with Burrows playing a very plodding rimshot and ride cymbal pattern. Then, it builds into a softer version of the song “Wonder” from earlier in the record, with Arreguin taking lead vocals again. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and makes me feel sleepy as if in a trance. There are bits of harp that flow in between the vocal lines in the verses, and gorgeous background “oohs” and “ahs” during the chorus. I love when bands return to a vocal theme, and “Wonder (II)” is a masterful example.
To be honest, I had to check to make sure that “Jennifer’s Gone” was not a cover of some Lou Reed b-side that I’d overlooked. I’m not quite sure which band member sings on this song, or if it was their intention to sound like Reed, but they pay an absolutely gorgeous tribute to one of the godfathers of indie rock. During the chorus, they sing, “And you can make me meals that fall right through my head / And leave me eating all the words you never said / Jennifer is gone and that's all you need to know / Jennifer is gone.” It appears to be about a love turned sour, but could also be about the loss of a dear friend. It’s this ambiguity that gives the song its power. Meals are shared between friends and family, and they usually satisfy the folks involved. The fact that this narrator is “eating all the words you never said” is just such a mournful image. As Laughing Matter draws to a close, the members of Wand leave us with this absolute tearjerker of a song.
There are few bands that manage to identify what mood they’re going for, then execute it perfectly. Wand knows exactly how to write a record that leaves you with a lingering, unsettled feeling. I’ve had Laughing Matter on repeat for a couple of weeks now, and I’m convinced that it is a modern masterpiece. Not only is it musically flawless, but it’s a piece of art that creates a tangible atmosphere. The songs are endlessly fascinating. For me, it’s akin to watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Suspiria - movies that are gruesome and scary, but also visually stunning. You come away from an experience like that appreciating your own life. After listening to Laughing Matter nearly religiously, I feel a little uneasy. But, I know everything’s alright.
That’s what makes Wand such an incredible and special band. It’s almost like they’re wizards in the desert, conjuring up magic spells that are released through pop songs. And in the spirit of this absolutely refreshing and gorgeous record, I want you to follow these instructions:
1. Get in your car around sunset.
2. Find a scenic road near you.
3. Put on Laughing Matter
4. Drive until the record is over.
5. Return home, a changed person.