The brothers pare things back but maintain their experimental edge
If you ignore the words, “Bluesmom,” which opens the new Sweet Teeth album, Soft Landing on the Sun, could be viewed as almost hopeful, a lush musical backdrop of cascading cello suggesting a rising sun. But that serene image comes crashing to earth the moment Stew Johnson opens his mouth, singing, “I feel like shit/Every day/And every day I feel like shit,” as strings flutter around him like multicolored butterflies.
“It’s the drudgery of living under capitalism and having to go to a job,” Johnson said, laughing at the dichotomy. “My brother, Sam, is my other band member, and he’s a professional cellist and has his doctorate. And that song is so funny because, to me, it is like waking up in the morning with that Beatles song in my head where it’s so sleepy and he sounds so exhausted he doesn’t want to get out of bed (“I’m Only Sleeping”), and that’s me. And then Sam is already up and playing that literal song, ‘Pachelbel’s Canon,’ just this boring-ass, fixed-note cello part.”Want to feel less like sh!t every day?: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Throughout Soft Landing, the brothers explore this push-and-pull, flitting between moments of beauty and emotional brutality on songs that combine eclectic, psych-pop instrumentals (“Never Recover,” for one, suggests of Montreal’s hyper-caffeinated art-pop) with lyrics born of anxiety, discomfort and a creeping existential dread. On “Everything Is,” the narrator catches their reflection in a window and starts imagining the body parts they’d cut off “if my knife were sharp.”
“I had this happen with the last album, too, where I write pretty plainly about the things I’m feeling or going through, and it feels like a release, or a journaling session, and then I release them to the world and friends and people who love me, and it raises all of this concern and these red flags,” said Johnson, who will join his brother for an album release show at the Summit on Saturday, Oct. 19. “And I fully get that, and would probably feel the same way ... but I think it is relatable in a way that people understand. … I think a lot of my words are more plainspoken about some of those sadder things.”
This time around, the brothers worked to keep the music similarly taut, with Stew Johnson, who described himself as prone to crafting long, dense, artistically elaborate tracks, paring things back so that a bulk of the songs land in that more traditional three-to-four-minute range. Even then, Sweet Teeth doesn’t play it entirely straight. A trio of songs toward the middle of the album gradually degrade and break into musical particulate — a nod to the 2005 Animal Collective album Feels.
“[Feels] has a similar thing where it jumps out of the gate with two or three or four pop-heavy, wild songs, and then there are four songs in the middle that are barely there,” said Johnson, who started Sweet Teeth alongside his brother after moving to Columbus from South Carolina in 2013. “They’re creepy and unsettling, and there’s weird, nature-dissolving imagery, and then the album comes back and there’s this big, joyous release at the end.”
With Soft Landing, this arrives in the form of the propulsive, drum machine-driven “Ocean Chorus” and the glitchy, album-closing “Broken in Half,” which finds the frontman both confronting his flaws (“I’m not always the easiest person to be around”) and exploring the wild urges that drive him to create outside of his workaday life.
“I want to make a mess when all my work is done,” he sings. “Plot out the stars and the moon with smoke and seizures.” And the occasional cello playing “Pachelbel’s Canon.”