Issue #55: Tempest In A Teacup by Mal Blum

March 7, 2017

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Tempest In A Teacup by Mal Blum
Released On May 7, 2013

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Shannon Cleary

I really love stand-up comedy. It might be one of my favorite things in the universe. Considering how honest the material can be, it seems to harbor a particular connection that can be difficult to find in other mediums. Case in point, I found a kindred voice in the comedian Chris Gethard and his record entitled My Comedy Album. Throughout the album, Gethard contemplates his anxieties and how to cull laughter from the proceedings. After explaining how he ended up getting engaged despite having two Morrissey tattoos, you would think the record has reached its conclusion. As the half-hour comedy set wraps up, a voice is introduced on a track entitled “Crying At The Wawa” and I was left intrigued. After checking the tracklist, it would soon become apparent that the voice I was hearing was Mal Blum. Blum and Gethard would divulge their creative insecurities, personal anguishes, and emotional turmoil through the course of five minutes. All of this resulting in a refrain that dissects the inevitable breakdown in the most awkward of places. Similar to what drew me to Gethard, I found myself wanting to discover more about Blum.

My first leap would be towards the record Tempest In A Teacup. I found a similar honesty and willingness to divulge personal anecdotes through Blum’s songs and I knew I had discovered a new favorite storyteller. One of the first songs that really struck a chord with me was “Altitude (This Party Sucks)” and how Blum traces the actions of one evening spent under a few romantic misunderstandings. As they enter the scene, the person you were looking forward to spend an eventful evening with has seemingly decided to entertain themselves otherwise. All one is left with is feelings of self-consciousness and wondering when the message got misinterpreted. It’s a moment captured in a song that feels universally accessible and leaves listener’s finding a muse in Blum.

Moments later, songs like “Brooklyn” and “The Difference” lend a very different narrative to the proceedings. You begin to realize that the majority of Tempest In A Teacup is Blum’s breakup record with a former significant other. It’s trying to come to grips with the person you used to adore and how that can change over time. “Brooklyn” is a plea to wish the best for your former love, but demanding that respectful space is provided as they will wait for you to leave the city before they move there. “The Difference” is matter of factly a course of observation in how things can change with the people that you felt so close to and now, they exist as practically ambivalent as compared to their former passionate selves.

In the final moments of Tempest In A Teacup, Blum lays everything out with “Valentine’s Day” and a proper send-off of the remarkably terrible holiday is delivered. Blum reflects on being in a relationship where each partner is openly cheating on one another and further engaging an open conversation with the listeners. Examples are presented about how arbitrary going to borrow a loofah can seem until you catch your lover cheating on you. At the same time, Blum considers how these could all be conditions of commitment issues, mental health and the ways we distract ourselves from our real problems. If anything, the song bearing the name of a much criticized holiday feels even more appropriate considering how much it dissects the complexities of relationships and how sometimes the solutions and answers to fix everything can be simple and difficult at the same time.

As Blum closes the record with a plea to stop committing adultery, they offer a half-hearted ode to the holiday and the poignancy of Tempest In A Teacup feels perfectly captured. To think that from a bonus track on a comedy album, I would stumble upon one of my favorite songwriters. In many ways, that’s how we stumble upon the people that we feel a desire to want to spend our time with. Even if it ends with condemning Valentine’s Day and reflecting on how everything might have gone terribly awry, the one thing left is knowing that the experience in the first place is what made it all worthwhile in the first place.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles

A true songwriter, Mal Blum soars on their ability to write engaging stories full of deeper meaning and perceptive examinations.

Tempest In A Teacup is just so damn colorful. And original. And funny. And different. It’s like a perfectly chilled Greek salad — there aren’t even that many ingredients, but every ingredient is deliberate, flavorful and adds so much to the overall presentation. I know that’s a weird analogy for a music piece, but follow me. It’s the little touches of instrumentation that pepper the album with emotion, like the bells on “Overseas Now“, the shrieking violin of “The Bodies, The Zombies!” or the well-timed accordion on “The Difference“. But the best part are the hunks of feta cheese. Wait, I mean, Blum’s lyrical prowess is the feta cheese. I mean, it’s the best part (side note: how ironic is it that I just butchered a salad analogy?). Blum’s self-aware, descriptive and somewhat confrontational approach to songwriting makes you feel like you’re their therapist, and they bullied their way over to the office for an unannounced couch session. By “Brooklyn“, it’s pretty clear that Mal Blum is not good at relationships, but really good at writing songs. I wish “Brooklyn” was longer, which is a clear sign that it’s probably an awesome record. The crown jewel of the album is “Valentine’s Day.” I mentioned earlier that Tempest is colorful — “and in the local drug store I feel a bit like Moses / walking through a Red Sea of greeting cards and roses.” That’s just dope writing, period. “Let’s stop cheating on each other this Valentine’s Day” is such an unexpected, hilarious chorus there’s no argument for me as to why this record is my favorite on the album. For God’s sake, they rhymed “loofah” with “schtuping”!

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

Mal Blum walks quite the tightrope on Tempest In A Teacup. The main genre they are tackling here, which I would perhaps foolishly describe as folk-punk, is a very easy genre to find descending into cutesy tweeness. And not the good kind of twee, either — not Heavenly, but Frankie Cosmos and stuff like that. Bleh. Fortunately, ukuleles never come anywhere near this album. Blum’s handiness with melody and intelligent decisions about when to integrate other instruments besides their acoustic guitar are important elements making these songs stick and deliver, giving them resonance and beauty rather than cloying sweetness. I’d have to credit some of this to the fact that Blum seems as deeply embedded in the lesbian alternative folk scene (strong scare quotes around that phrase, of course, and I don’t want to be too essentialist, but at the same time, this is a very real thing) as they are in the folk-punk scene — they’ve toured not only with Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson, but also Melissa Ferrick, and there are definite Tegan And Sara vibes happening on this album, right alongside the Moldy Peaches resonances. I definitely prefer the more serious, less cutesy songs — “Counting My Breaths” in particular benefits from the string-section accents, while lengthy centerpiece “With Samson In Washington State” creates a hushed since of intensity that sticks with you. Songs about zombies and parties and relationship peccadilloes send the pendulum swinging toward quirkiness, but Blum’s excellent singalong melodies keep things safely away from the cloying obnoxiousness that keeps similar artists from bearing many repeat listens. This one is worth going back to.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Even though this is my first introduction to Mal Blum, they feel like an artist I’ve listened to for a long time. Blum writes the sort of wordy, slightly quirky songs that feel very familiar right away; it’s the combination of the simple rhymes, the lyrical density, the musical arrangements and textures — a kind of “classic twee indie rock,” if you will. Blum also has an incredible knack for storytelling. They stuff their songs with so much specificity and distinctive voice, taking simple concepts like being at a party (“Altitude (This Party Sucks)“) or heartbreak (“Valentine’s Day“) and turning them into something personal and complicated, yet still relatable to a wider audience. The whole package, then, makes Tempest In A Teacup easy to like at first listen and easy to love over time, full of catchy tunes and lyrical depth. Opening track “Overseas Now” is a knockout. Take a listen for yourself — it’ll be like meeting someone who becomes an instant friend.

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

I went to a ton of house shows in college, mostly because my friends lived in punk houses and that was our hang out time. We drank cases of beer and entertained visitors from across the country. I saw so many loud punk bands, screamy guitar rock, and earnest singer-songwriters that I became burned out, on punk bands and earnest singer-songwriters in particular. Why do they always complain about bad relationships? Why can’t they get their shit together? It seemed really childish to me, especially once I became a boring married lady with a regular work schedule who rarely left the house during the week. But there’s been such an influx of great pop-punk lately that I’ve become more energized by current “youth” music. (I know I sound like I’m 80 but I’m not.) Don Giovanni (Waxahatchee, Laura Stevenson), has become a mark of quality to me, and the fact that they released the most recent Mal Blum LP made me intrigued by Shannon’s pick, Tempest In A Teacup. Even though I don’t connect immediately to Blum’s relationship woes (like “let’s stop cheating on each other” from “Valentine’s Day“), I appreciate what they’re expressing through their music. Once I heard the harmonica solo (swoon!) on “Overseas Now,” I knew I was listening to something special, more than an awkward punk-kid-turned-folk-singer in my friend’s living room. Blum can be earnest, sure, but also fascinatingly honest and clever. Rocker “Brooklyn” is the most Crutchfield-ian and the catchiest — “I don’t mind, you can move to Brooklyn when I’m gone” just won’t leave my head. I really love how Blum allows their voice to not be perfect — there’s yelps and places where their voice breaks off or gets strained, making the sentiments feel even more genuine. I ended up preferring You Look a Lot Like Me to Tempest, because the songs just sound so much fuller with a band, but Mal Blum is an artist to follow in the future, especially if they keep reflecting on heartbreak and depression in such a self-aware manner.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Click here to watch the playful undead music video for “The Bodies, The Zombies!”

Must-watch video for the brutal fight scenes & heart-breaking climax.

The thing that I think I like most about this album is something that will come off as a backhanded compliment, but hear me out. I love the way you can understand every single word that Mal Blum sings. Lyrics are so important to me and when a singer is singing clearly, it means the world. But this extends beyond diction. I like that I don’t have to parse through overly intricate lyrics. It makes me feel like I can connect more completely with them because they are telling it like it is. I especially enjoyed “Altitude (This Party Sucks)” and “Counting My Breaths” for those reasons. And I will always back a song about zombies that also contains an exclamation point (a category previously only occupied, in my mind, by Sufjan Stevens, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind sharing the spotlight) and that might sound like a joke but it’s not. I know that I’m going to be listening to someone with at least a shred of a sense of humor when I see that in the tracklist (the song on this album is called “The Bodies, The Zombies!“, if you were curious) and Mal Blum has quite a bit more than just a shred. I loved this album. It’s the kind of album where every song is my favorite when it’s the song that’s playing. Mal Blum has five more releases as of this writing, and I am looking forward to listening to them all!

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

When Lou Reed put a microphone in front of Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker and asked her to sing “After Hours,” he had no idea he was creating a whole genre to the side of the main influence of his groundbreaking band. Wow — that was a mouthful of a way to say Mal Blum reminds me of Moe Tucker! Of course, in this case, there’s nobody pulling the strings. Blum writes and performs their own material. Like Reed, however, there is some literary genesis to the songs — Blum started as a writer, turning to songs to seek a wider audience for the well-crafted tragicomic interpersonal vignettes that are the bread and butter of Tempest In A Teacup. Blum is very good at this stuff and if it is occasionally too cutesy for my taste, that could just be because I’m used to only one Moe Tucker song per album!

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

I have a new favorite Off Your Radar discovery. I’m so thankful to Shannon for picking this, and to whatever universal forces conspired to arrange the confluence of two events: buying a ticket to see Conor Oberst play at Friday Cheers and starting to listen to Tempest In A Teacup later that same Thursday. Call it kismet. I hear in Blum’s writing the same sharpness — both in terms of insight and wry humor — that made me fall in love with Bright Eyes. I even hear a similar gift for emphasis: Blum creatively reassigns syllable emphasis in the same way Oberst does (“eVEN the end”) and similarly digs into single phrases, repeating the lines that get to the core of what songs are about (“It’s about the altitude not who is climbing up”). I also love the way geography is used throughout. It seems like city names pop up in every other verse, and multiple songs dwell on the idea of moving from one city to another because of someone else. In that sense, Tempest In A Teacup is both grounded by the specifics of place and haunted by the potential for being uprooted. That contradiction is front and center in “With Samson in Washington State,” a six-plus-minute saga in which subtle changes in dynamics demonstrate Blum’s mastery of pacing and drama. Talk about pulling at heartstrings. Really amazing. I can’t wait to dig into the rest of Blum’s catalog.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Blum’s ability to switch from the whimsical twee and folk sound to the more gritty punk style is nothing short of spectacular.

Loosely strummed guitar that sounds like it had a mic placed right up against the sound hole, paired with the sparkling tones of a happy-go-lucky glockenspiel in the opener, “Overseas Now,” made it obvious Blum was not out to follow any sort of conventional formula with arrangement or sonic perfection with Tempest In A Teacup. That said, given their participation in the (unfortunately now defunct) CMJ Music Marathon back in 2013, carrying over a similar aesthetic to that casual and unpredictable live music setting then felt a bit less jarring and actually made me wish I had been at their showcases back then. Nearly every song brought up thoughts that ran parallel to existing musicians or ideas. The tone color of the piano and its minimal but bouncing hook, all combined with matter-of-fact lyrics make “The Difference” sound like something quintessentially Regina Spektor or Ben Folds. “Overseas Now” has a strum style and a chord progression that embodies an easy going Jack Johnson track, and the stripped down, endearingly dorky “Valentine’s Day” could be a straight up stand-in song on the soundtracks to either Juno (“Anyone Else But You“) or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (“Ramona“). I also did a major double take right at the beginning of “Side I’m On” because its introduction feels distinctly “Two Headed Boy” in delivery. (To be fair, how many songs use G major to C Major? Yet, again, it’s the overall flow thereof that does the trick.) This isn’t to say Blum doesn’t sound like their own person or that they simply copied, pasted, or traced along the lines of pre-existing writing models. Their method of recording and production, not to mention Blum’s own voice, are significant differentiators. There’s particular enjoyment to be had in picking up on all the axillary instruments that are allowed to come through in the mix — electric violin, cello, cascades of high toned synth keys, and even a mandolin being snuck in there — which separate Tempest In A Teapcup from being stamped as “just some lo-fi college hipster album.” This rings true even if the straightforward and unapologetic title and narrative to “Altitude (This Party Sucks)” (“And if you wanted to come here / then why did you bring me along? / Now I’m sitting in this corner / pretending I know this song”) pulls the free-spirited CMJ party nostalgia part of your brain in a direction to the contrary.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

Their songs feel like you’re reading a deeply personal diary. From starting my favorite song “Brooklyn” (which reminds me of Swearin’), with an invitation to hangout before quickly switching to “You can move to Brooklyn when I’m gone!” to “Let’s stop cheating on each other because the community isn’t that big and they will always find out” in “Valentine’s Day.” It’s hard not to feel the isolation of a person living within a small subgroup, while listening to the music of Mal Blum. Tempest In A Teacup is not a record made for me or my current state in life, but I’m still interested to hear what I missed on their follow up “You Look A Lot Like Me” that was produced by Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

On our kitchen shelf, the one overlooking the side yard, sits a pink glass basket, one side of the handle cracked, a wine charm made by our friend Caroline dangling from the other. There’s a frosted Mason jar wrapped in birch bark and brown twine that once held flowers brought over by Cristin when we held Friendsgiving at our house. Little white dishes we unceremoniously use for BBQ sauce and ketchup are stacked beside a vase filled with chopsticks and drink stirrers from hotels and casinos long closed down. Memories, sure, are held on this shelf, but mostly because I keep the pretty things and these things are pretty. Driving down Broad Street this morning, going to Proper Pie in Richmond because Eric has somehow never had one, I listened to Mal Blum’s album Tempest In A Teacup. Striking first is how precisely, scratchily beautiful their voice, their sound. Simplistic, voice up front, the plinky notes of a child’s toy piano and the most minimal guitar in “Overseas Now” lets you linger on the babbling brook of a poem sung as lyrics. Quirky, sure, nothing brand new, a sound I’ve heard before out of the mouths of Kimya Dawson and Feist, that kind of throaty gorgeous that plays over the airwaves as delicate, but never fragile. Standing in the middle of the chaos that is Proper Pie, looking at the menu trying to decide what Eric might like because this is a surprise and I can’t ask, Kimya Dawson starts to play and I smile, thinking how perfect Mal Blum would be, playing in that moment instead. Mired in a beauty of aesthetic, aroma, conversation, and good intentions, the earnest and honest playful prettiness of Tempest In A Teacup only added to the gorgeousness of the morning.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

It’s weird what music can be soothing while sick. I have my go to records and songs for moments when I want to wallow or celebrate, but for feeling under the weather, it’s always hard to find out what will work. Battling a wicked chest cold the last several days, unable to concentrate for too long on the glorious Breath Of The Wild, I found a lot of comfort in Tempest In A Teacup. Lyrically, it’s a record by a writer almost for writers with clever twists and interesting wordplay that makes simple stories and songs that much more engaging. Musically, it’s beautifully restrained and wonderfully executed with a nice medium found between the folk and punk styles. Listening to it in bed while guzzling as much water as humanely possible, it felt like curling up with a good book on a miserable day. Despite the serious subject matter and deplorable accusations, it lifted my spirits, mostly due to Mal Blum’s wacky, yet endearing personality, something that would make any piece of music instantly charming.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Gold Shadow by Asaf Avidan
Chosen By Davy Jones

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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