Protomartyr‘s Joe Casey is the kind of singer that makes the most sense as a solitary figure. His signature sing-speak—somewhere between The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas—is a defining aspect of the Detroit post-punk group’s sound, a stream-of-consciousness narration through the tragic and absurd nature of existence with a few detours through personal trauma and extended metaphor. He doesn’t disappear into an ensemble’s harmonies—his vocals situate him as narrator, carnival barker and inner monologue all at once.
Casey doesn’t sing alone on Protomartyr’s new EP Consolation. In fact on two tracks, he’s joined by The Breeders’ Kelley Deal, whose own melodic backing serves as an unexpected counterpoint to Casey’s leads. What a difference one voice makes: On “Wheel of Fortune,” the set’s intense, five-minute standout, Deal joins Casey in a recurring chorus of “I decide who lives and who dies!“, their two styles acting in harmony and counterpoint at once amid a series of descriptions of contemporary American horrors. Strangely, it makes the song feel more unsettling as a result, the menace inherent in that statement more visceral than if passed down from just one lone voice. It’s such a simple change, but it makes a world of difference.
Deal adds more than vocal tracks to Consolation, however. Protomartyr recorded the EP with her, and she arranged its final track “You Always Win,” which is the most lush and maximalist the band’s ever sounded. Melancholy strings slide up against a shoegaze-like swarm of guitar distortion and eventually give way to a mischievous clarinet that weaves its way around the bridge. Meanwhile, Deal’s own vocals return, balancing out the complex progression of sonic diversions with the most accessible sound of the entire track. It’s a curious irony—Deal is responsible in large part for building “You Always Win” into the intricate and chaotic piece that it is, yet it’s her own vocals that give it a warmth and grounding.
It’s ultimately Protomartyr’s own shards of dissonant guitar and Casey’s grotesque visions that tie this all back to the rest of their catalog. The brief “Wait” is dark, eerie and loud, complete with visions of “ironic t-shirts wet with blood,” while “Same Face Different Mirror” eases off the intensity slightly to find clarity in discomfort: “Ugly is intact, but the frame is clearer.” All four of the tracks on Consolation feel like an extension of the post-truth nervous breakdown the band delivered on last year’s Relatives in Descent, yet in bringing Deal in to play a major role in the recordings, it’s more than a mere appendix. It’s a compelling glimpse at the possibilities of an already strong band expanding their horizon.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.