Life sometimes has a funny rhythm to it. Our editor recognized no one had signed up to review the new Hotline TNT record, Cartwheel, and put out a call that someone should, given its abundant quality, but that for a bevy of reasons he wasn’t able to. I reached out but, ah, too slow! All was well, however: I’d just started a new day job, a way to pull in a salary to help out around the house, plus I had a vacation lined up, a week-long jaunt to visit my uncle, the same one who introduced me to Hüsker Dü, for the first multi-day stay there since that very trip over a decade ago, a way for my fiancée to finally meet him and my aunt after all these years. The tags our editor used, likening the album to Sugar and Dinosaur Jr. through a My Bloody Valentine filter, spoke deep to my interests, interests inherited in large part from the uncle I was visiting, but alas, someone else would do it. As I prepare to head to the train station, I check my messages. It’s my editor: change of plans, Langdon do you still have the bandwidth?
For the past week straight, I have been spinning this record while I read, while I write, having stopped taking notes on it over a dozen listens ago. The critical components, the dotted Is and crossed Ts of the job, came quick: Hotline TNT, a modern shoegaze group, situates themselves between the tri-polarity of groups like latter-day My Bloody Valentine, criminally undersung Chapterhouse and the exponentially more criminally undersung loveliescrushing, finding a fusion point at the heavily noisy nearly-electronica psychedelic effects-driven elements of all three groups, all of which is nailed against firm and clear pop rock songwriting. They label themselves grunge as well on their Bandcamp, sharing a commonality of approaches to grunge with groups like Teenage Wrist and Wavves, hewing less to a real historical image of grunge and more to a blurred and smeary faded VHS tape of what that era must have felt like to people who weren’t there. This sounds like a knock, but it isn’t; there is the heft of sincerity here melded against a deliberate artfulness, something distinct from contemporary emo’s approach to sincerity which can often read as overly contrived and undisciplined. Despite the density of the noisescapes that occasionally cloud these songs, they all feel melodically and, more importantly, emotionally driven; the compositions are keenly edited, pruned, sequenced, such that the yearning/bummer binary modality is never corrupted nor are any easy answers ever proffered. This is a hybridization of a lot of different aspects of early ’90s and late ’80s alternative music that, at the time, had little to do with each other aside from a fanbase, but it’s a hybrid that works exceedingly well.
For one thing, on Cartwheel, Hotline TNT hews to one of the greatest truisms of both grunge and shoegaze of that era, which is to be driven by vocal melody but not necessarily by traditional linguistic meaning. Instead, communication is made by gesture, the way a melody lifts or curls a word, the stray phrases that rise above the noise of the guitars and effects to cut through, like arrows bursting through a fog bank fired by distant shadowed armies, all aimed for your heart. In less interesting hands, these are the types of progressions and melodies one might find in your Coldplays and The Frays and other boring doldrums of modern pop-rock radio; but here, they find hands that are clearly as interested in interesting and compelling texture as they are in the tunefulness of song, unwilling to abandon either end. Lord knows we love us some avant-garde shit here at Treble, but as much as we might adore the wild fringes of the musical world, it’s dishonest to pretend not to like a good song, a melody that like a fishhook digs into the folds of the muscles of your heart and, tearing, spills blood down your shirt. These songs are brief, with few eclipsing the three-minute mark, letting them lean heavily on their machine-milled verses and choruses, making the ambient/noise tracks feel like earned transitions between miniature suites of perfect slices of pop, making the whole record play more like a 30-plus minute meditation on a barely sublimated sense of longing.
It’s shocking then that I’d never really heard of this group before. In researching this review, I pored back over their body of work, finding Cartwheel to be the most accomplished of their albums so far, featuring both the keenest and most honed melodies and progressions and playing but also the most robust mixture of noisy-heavy psychedelic production that still carried enough pop punch to nail all the fundamentals of the songs being played. They also represent a growing wing of young shoegaze groups like Full Body 2 and They Are Gutting A Body Of Water, which seem to live in a strange hybrid space that reminds me of if vaporwave came for grunge and shoegaze. That this record would turn around and give that other musical gift, a window of insight into how younger groups are interpolating this body of material that is so dear to me, is but another great boon.
Opener “Protocol” has the same swooning noise guitars flying like birds as those brilliant early MBV EPs; songs like “History Channel” and “BMX” channel a sense of alternative youth that, at the apex of my thirties, feels like a strange glowing memory in my heart; “I Thought You’d Change” and “Stomp” come out with all the clarity of Sugar at their best, refining the hiss and wild noise of Hüsker Dü to get at the brilliant power-pop-honed gems of Bob Mould’s best years. It’s rare a record that makes me think as much of Big Star and the Raspberries as it does Beach House and Cloud Nothings.
Despite these touchpoints I can weave (shit, I haven’t mentioned early R.E.M., who feel eerily present especially over the tracks featuring more clearly pronounced jangle), I can’t stress enough how natural and unforced Cartwheel feels. It doesn’t read like record nerds trying to impress you with as many clever nods as they can fit into a sub-40-minute window. It feels instead, refreshingly, like true songs from honest hearts and practiced hands, an approach to songwriting and an aesthetic sensibility that effortlessly calls to mind the decades worth of material in its milieu rather than sounding like bland imitation. I could tell moments into starting Bloom by Beach House that I would be returning to that record for years and years to come; with Cartwheel, I can tell the same. Welcome, Hotline TNT. I’m glad to meet you. I hope you stay a long while with us.
Label: Third Man
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.