Issue #160: Survival Sounds by Rubblebucket

May 6, 2019

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Survival Sounds by Rubblebucket
Released On August 26, 2014
Released By Communion Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Guest Contributor Julia Nunes

I first saw Rubblebucket in college — they toured through Saratoga Springs at least twice while I was at Skidmore and put on the most exulted, raucous show I’d ever seen. The horn section parading through the crowd with a giant robot puppet, the whole crowd singing along to uniquely catchy songs. Everything they do strikes me that way: familiar yet foreign, and always delivered with wild energy.

Survival Sounds begins with a reverbed-out drone vocal, a warbley synth playing a simple/strange melody, and then quickly explodes with a very satisfying drum hit, into joyful horns and claps. Kalmia, the lead singer and sax player, comes in singing “leave me on the ground.” To me, the song captures the exhaustion and excitement that comes with being a human. “Please don’t shake us around” like she’s requesting a little breather from the whirl wind that is life.

If you ever need a song to lift you up when it feels like you’re going around and around, making the same mistakes, blast “Carousel Ride,” the second track, and let Kalmia compel you to “dance in the fire.” The fat, crunchy guitars invite you to head bang on the choruses, while the verses call for more of a step-touch-snap. One of my favorite moments in the whole record is on this song when Kalmia sings “oops… do do do do!” A little humor and self-awareness go a long way when you’re stuck in a cyclical bummer state.

Rubblebucket has dynamism on lock. They get all the way serious, then all the way fun. The production too, often swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other in a single song. There’s this section in the middle of “Rewind,” which is an overall funky jam, that melts into a dreamy swirly reminder that “fear is a lesson,” and then swells back into the run-through-the-streets-naked groove from the beginning.

I want to just list off my top five most poignant lyrics because it’s the thing I care about most in my own music and Rubblebucket has a way of just nailing certain sentiments:

Sound Of Erasing” – “Oh I wish I was / a planet / with a forest full of answers / but instead I’m just a human / freaking out out out out out.” I second that emotion

Young And Old” – “Here by simple luck / so let go and feel the one across from you / it’s all you gotta do” and “when I’m old / I will argue about only how you’re the best and I think you’re a slayer.” The amount of love in these lines makes my heart ache. Love for the present moment, the people in it, and the wisdom to know that you can get over any kind of fight with enough time and perspective.

My Life” – “Had you in my life / things were pretty nice” and “I know you need to need me / so you bleed me / that’s all right I guess.” This song is such a bop about such a doomed relationship, which is exactly my style.

Origami” – “When darkness crawls in bed with me / folding up like origami / I know it and I embrace it” and “why can’t it always be fun (always always always be fun).” That dynamism! Integrating and accepting your darker emotions, playfully wishing you didn’t have to really address them.

Hey Everybody” – “Hey everybody if you don’t know why you’re like this / if you don’t think you can take it / you just need to scream a little, dream a little on your throne.” A reminder to yell, move, and treat yourself like the royalty you are.

This record has such reverence for the messy process of self-discovery, love, loss, and mortality. The giganticness of the production reflects the immensity of the concepts they cover. The horn parts get so complex and there’s so many little noises that come in to ping your ears, never to be heard from again. I think I could listen to it ten times a day for years and still hear something new every time.

It’s a sound track for survival, bitter sweet reflections on the past, and courageous declarations for the future set to a beat you can let toss you from side to side until you give in and dance.

Julia Nunes (@julianunes)
Lyrical Maven & Vivid Artiste

Vibrantly bold in sound & intimately earnest in words.

I read an article recently. It reported that a recent study conducted across two universities, one in Europe and one in the UK, had determined that people who listen to sad music are generally happier. While the data was enough to form this conclusion, it wasn’t enough for a scientific answer to why that might be the case. Several theories were put forth including, rather cynically, that people were made happier by the idea that there were other worse off than themselves. Other theories included the idea that sad music offered a sort of emotional tuning fork with which one could resonate. In effect, sad songs were relatable and therefor comforting. The third and most popular theory related to the release of a hormone which had been attributed specifically to both melancholy music and the act of mourning. When you’re sad, your brain release hormones which aim to bring a sort of balance. Rubblebucket’s 2014 studio record Survival Sounds is only marginally melancholy. There is far too much bombast in the copious woodwinds, keyboards, and distorted guitar chords to call it melancholy, and it’s certainly hard for a trumpet to sound sad unless it’s alone and played slowly and sullenly. But it strikes me as the sort of record which one might be able to relate to. The track “Origami” has a catchy pop melody in which the horns ring out alongside vocalist Kalmia Traver unusually flat and yet seriously overzealous singing style. Weak vocals is a thing that can be made to work really well — particularly in indie or art rock bands along the lines of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and others. With a strong melody and strong lyrical songwriting, there is little need to be able to belt out with glass-shattering passion. On “My Life,” for example, Traver manages to hit all the right notes to make for a melodic pop album with complicated and unpredictable structures. While it may not be the most accessible pop record for mainstream audiences, Survival Sounds boasts some serious songwriting and arrangements skills. It’s hard to make brass instruments sound anything other than brash and yet Rubblebucket seem to make it work through fins production and melodies which lend themselves well to an all-over-the-map vocal style and serious guitar rock-outs. It doesn’t end there. On “Young And Old,” the band explore some more familiar pop territory which brings to mind CHVRCHES. Praised by many for their energetic live performances, the band seems to take a little bit more of a gentle approach on Survival Sounds, but it’s easy to imagine the same tracks working really well (even better, perhaps) in a live environment. Each track is unique and layered very deep with heavy percussion, keys, and guitars. The band spare no room for negative space, preferring instead to make a record which is honest, noisey, and will appeal to anyone with an affinity for art rock bands.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

Droplets of water sprinkle across hot shoulders, shaken from fingertips dipped in the pool, sliding down a curved glass filled with icy margaritas. Little peaks and cracks in the cement pierce waterlogged soles, tripping back and forth between strappy lounge chairs and the welcome steps of the pool. There’s heat, but there’s also a little relief in that first splash back into the pool. In Survival Sounds, the gorgeous 2014 album from Brooklyn’s Rubblebucket, that same icy relief plays out with their mix of electro pop, ska, and dance beats against a broad indie pop background. The ska beat, waterfall synth, and eyes-closed, sweet voice of “Sound Of Erasing” acts as a time stamp for the album, crystallizing the heart of Rubblebucket’s sound. There’s a drop in the beat, a lazy wave in the rhythm that will have dipping your head back, arms out, like you were sliding into a pool warmed by the sun. Everything about this pop sugar glistens with shimmery heat, as at home tinnily playing from a sticky sand speaker as it is blaring from subwoofers in a club. In a more dreamy moment, the band’s “Young And Old” still feels electric, driven by a mesmerizing percussive line. With other bands earning more attention with this Caribbean styled synth pop (I’m looking right at you, Arcade Fire), Rubblebucket feels like an amazing secret, a hot tip on the stock market, a hilarious comedian just poised to shoot off into stardom. Throw this on one steamy Virginia night when you’re watching the whiskey dip low in the bottle as your pals dance, sweat making little pincurls on foreheads and the back of the neck, and see where the night takes you.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

If hipsters and art students were to take over the world and overthrow the mainstream, I imagine that albums like Survival Sounds would repopulate the top 40. I’m not completely sure if that would be my favorite thing honestly, because then I wouldn’t be able to write about fantastic, underappreciated artists like Rubblebucket for Off Your Radar, and then refer people to innovative and accessible pop music every Sunday afternoon — but maybe it’s a sacrifice worth making, for a better world. Alas, if hipsters were to take over the world, I guess I’d be sitting here writing about the new Taylor Swift single or something. Who knows what chaos would ensue? My point is that I really appreciate some good art-pop, when artists can make a three-minute single sound like a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band outtake, or confuse the very boundaries often placed around ‘good’ music, that keep some independent artists from ever fully supporting themselves financially with music. I say it time and time again that artists who can merge listen-ability with innovation are the key to a brighter musical future for the mainstream, and on Survival Sounds, Rubblebucket embodies this concept impressively well. My favorite track on this record is certainly “Young And Old,” with its whimsical, yet simultaneously philosophical lyrics over a “neo-soul meets slacker rock” sound aesthetic. There really isn’t a bad cut on this album, but the grooves from the seventh track to the end take this record to the next level. I’m listening over and over, wondering how this one slipped by me in all of my music excavation sessions. Better eventually than never!

Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965

Click here to watch the rescue-heist video for “Carousel Ride.”

Finding & saving art while surrounded by mundanity & complacency.

Survival Sounds is a lotta fun. Yes, that seems like a basic, almost generic, observation, but hear me out. Something that’s fun for the intended audience isn’t always fun (or easy) to make. Sometimes it takes immense effort to create something effortless, or at least something that appears as such — for example: the golf swing of Ernie Els. Its fluidity and grace are stunningly gorgeous, and he makes it looks so damn easy. As a golfer for 21 years, I can tell you it isn’t. It takes long hours on the driving range. It takes immense patience. It takes mental stability. It takes hard work to make it look like you’re not trying. Now, I don’t know the level of difficulty it took for Rubblebucket to write and record this album. Maybe it was easy and quick; maybe it was hard and protracted. Given the sheer amusement I’ve gotten out of it, I’d like to think it was the latter, if only because generally it isn’t easy to create something this enjoyable. But perhaps that’s the case here. Indeed, the way that Kalmia Traver matter-of-factly tosses off variants of “fuck” suggests a laid-back atmosphere. But then again, maybe her delivery is part of the hard work put into these songs. After all, the record has the word “survival” in its title, and survival is rarely facile. Instead, it’s usually a struggle and usually comes with some level of excursion. After ruminating on this all week, I have no idea it if was a simple process to create such elastic bounce that’s highly infectious to the ear. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

In 2011, my online life was mostly dedicated to playing with new or experimental social media. I got an early invite to G+ at the beginning of July, but deleted that account fairly early when I started getting notifications that people I didn’t want having access to my life were able to subscribe to my Picasa feed (which included any photos I uploaded — no, thank you). But G+ led me to Subjot, which was a Twitter alternative that I still miss, and where I met a lot of people that I still talk to regularly on other platforms. Through Subjot, I was led to Diaspora*, which was good, and had the privacy features I wanted, but ran into the problem everything eventually runs into, which was that none of my friends were using it. That was also the year I started blogging, and was moderating the forums for an app, which took up far more of my free time than I like to admit. The platform I probably used the most was I liked being able to log on, find out which rooms my friends were in, then slide into the DJ booth as we chatted or just listened to each other’s music while getting other work done. Turntable was where I met S., who I am still very close to. He and I had N. as a mutual friend, and bonded over giving her immense amounts of shit about her taste in music. It wasn’t really that it was bad (it wasn’t and isn’t), but it was predictable, and we knew that when it was her turn for a song, it was going to be something we knew and had heard her play before. It always was. The night we made her ragequit after hitting the dislike button too many times on her songs is still a highlight of our relationship. All of this is to say that Rubblebucket’s Survival Sounds may have come out in 2014, but it feels like something we would have been playing in one of our Turntable groups a few years earlier, and I kind of wish it had so I could have racked up a bunch of Awesome points to upgrade my avatar.

SJ Lebowski
50 Foot Pop Queenie

Sometimes in this ultra-information age, it’s possible to know too much, which is why I kinda wish I hadn’t clicked on the “About” link for Rubblebucket’s Spotify page. I had already listened to the nearly relentless (almost oppressive) cheer of their album Survival Songs and peeped the playful, candy-colored aesthetic exhibited by Kalmia Traver and Alex Toth in their photos. So when I read, “As an experiment, Kalmia asked Alex (her longtime romantic partner) to move out while they worked on the album, then accepted the marriage proposal he made during a recording session just a month later. Although Alex soon moved back in, their 11-year relationship ended when the two chose to ‘consciously uncouple’ the following spring — a decision they honored by ceremoniously giving each other matching triangular daisy tattoos…” I was like, “Ew — I don’t want to know these people!” But, even though I can’t unread what I read, I get the concept of using music to tell yourself a different story than what’s going on inside of you. Take Marc Bolan, for example, whose music I have used countless times to cheer my way out of a hole — but you gotta think that his egotistical behavior and outsized persona were merely components of an exoskeleton created to prop up issues around self-worth and depression. It’s not my go-to to get all pop-psych on artists like Traver and Toth except that they kind of invite it with a bio that sounds like it was written by one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop interns. In any case, put it all to the side and get ready for a rollercoaster of bold and bright synths, bouncy rhythms, big choruses, and lyrics where “Neon letters flash L-O-V-E-E.” After all, Survival Songs (interesting title, no?) was made before all that mess hit their relationship, so take it in the spirit it was likely intended and smile, smile, smile.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

I feel great, and it’s because of this record. Do you remember when I said that Ryan Leslie’s debut (OYR Issue #142) was so special to me because it made me feel like sliding into rooms like Tom Cruise in Risky Business? Well, Survival Sounds makes me want to fly a spaceship while wearing sunglasses. I haven’t yet decided about the underwear. But let me take that comparison a bit further because, oddly enough, these two incredible records actually remind of each other more than you’d think. Both have an undeniable pop sensibility in terms of melody, smile-friendly chord progressions, and a big, imposing sound sure to light up any car, club, or karaoke bar. But what I found the most interesting was the underlying funk that’s seemingly omnipresent throughout Survival Sounds. I made an ugly face when I heard the aggressive opening drums of “Middle,” and was taken even further into the mud with the addition of an exceptionally funky bass line. The same happened on the Devo-ish “Shake Me Around.” And then again to extreme proportions on the incredible “Rewind,” which most definitely lives up to its title. Like many a great pop record, it’s a sparse track at the opening with driving drums, and a simple yet filthy bass line. The song continues to build with stellar sound selection into a really powerful chorus section that really gets your toes tapping. “Rewind” is so infectious that by the end of it, I found myself saying, “You know what? This song reminds of ‘Rock The Casbah‘ and I could certainly hear Will Smith rhyming over a loop of it twenty five years from now.” It doesn’t get any funkier than that.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Dynamic music that’s refreshingly unique in its balance and approach.

I spent a decent chunk of Sunday on a home improvement project that improved absolutely nothing. I’ll spare you the details, but it involved a half dozen YouTube instructional videos, more sets of pliers than anyone should own, and a sliding patio door that might as well be walled off from here on out. But you know what? It sounded damn good in my house while all this was going down, because Rubblebucket was there to gladden the disaster. Survival Sounds represents a grand, unflinching invitation to reframe your reality in the image of your choosing. Sometimes that means refusing to accept what’s put in front of you. In “Sound Of Erasing,” Kalmia Traver sings, “I won’t let you worry now / Don’t take me off this cloud.” Given the circumstances surrounding her health at the time the album was made, who wouldn’t reach for a lighter, less fraught plane of existence? Other songs go further into the realm of defiance, like “Young And Old,” in which she sings about “rising up as we are falling down.” There’s also the acknowledgement of the absurdity of life itself in opening track “On The Ground,” which declares convincingly, “We mortals are upside down.” That’s the song that stuck with me most throughout my time with the album this week, both before and after I learned about the scary circumstances Traver was dealing with. The song’s exuberance is impossible to deny. My four-year-old accompanied me on one of the hapless errands associated with Sunday’s project, and before I knew it, she was singing along to the chorus of “On The Ground,” while I was swimming in the triumph of the big, brassy theme that surfaces and resurfaces throughout. Who cares that we were driving toward failure? We were together, listening to music that made us feel invincible. That’s more than enough.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Music is a place where people can be completely themselves in whatever way they choose. They can experiment with sounds and lyrics and create a unique, personal piece of art to share with the world. I love that, and I’ve found in recent years, more and more artists are comfortable being who they are and not sticking to a formula, something that’s endlessly refreshing. That is what I felt about this album. I love the slightly otherworldly sound, the upbeat melodies that make me want to dance around my kitchen all night long — it’s the kind of music that would be perfect in either an ’80s classic or a modern indie film. When people are true to themselves, beautiful art is made and I feel that this album is an undeniably amazing piece of art.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

As much a study in dynamics as it is in endurance, Survival Sounds is a record for life, one that beautifully captures the highs and lows that come from all different directions. From the start, the tones are robust and brazen, flirting the line in its dance allure between daring and compelling. And the lyrics seem to follow-suit for the most part, with some lines daring you to dance despite the vulnerability (“Our hearts will break, I need to say it loud / Our bones can’t take, oh let me be a cloud” from “Hey Everybody“) while others compel you to join in the exuberance (“Let’s kiss all night in our ancient tongue / Rewind come back here” from “Rewind“). But these songs aren’t all dance affairs insulated by several layers of nuance and sentimentality. “Young And Old” may have the makings of a slight dance beat, one to casually sashay alongside, but with the direct sounds and thought-heavy lyrics, it’s one to let your mind oscillate around instead of your body. “Sound Of Erasing” is its counterpart in this sense, with direct lyrics and sound-heavy melodies that you probably should be dancing to, but could just as easily get caught up dissecting each section to hear all that’s going on. In fact, the whole record has that feeling throughout each song, thanks to a vibrant and diverse array of parts and instruments from flute and euphonium (shout-out band nerds) to synthesized bass and tricked-out keyboards. This all swirls together to make a sound instantly appealing, the type you hear in a casual setting and make note of, mental or physical, to seek out later. And once you spend the time with it in a non-casual way, you’ll feel the infectious quality of it all more, with the vocal theatrics and lyrical wordplay battling the horns and percussion for the record’s “most expressive” award. Without listing all the lyrics out in a thousand-word gushing essay, Kalmia Traver’s words are just sublime here, helping to root its sound in an eclectic, worldly dance pop, but also spurring it to reach for the stars and land somewhere short, firmly in the heavens of musical glory. Her slight inflections on particularly cutting lines (“Let my limbs sink through the floor / Ever down, lord, to the core” from “On The Ground“) convey the importance of the words in relation to the melodic punchlines offered in the chorus or apex of her songs, and reveal the depth of this record’s reach as it grasps the highs and lows of life with a firm, yet tenuous resolve. And isn’t that just the case with all of us? Barely holding our highs and lows together no matter how hard we try? As this record vividly showcases, Survival Sounds is one vivid life, and one we would all be proud to live.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Space To Move: Part 1 by Kyle Thornton & The Company
Chosen By Joel Worford

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, David Munro, Jeremy Shatan, Joel Worford, & Darryl Wright

Logo By Matt Klimas


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