Review: Melkbelly – “PITH”

Sorry, as much as you want them to be, Melkbelly aren’t a 2020s reincarnation of the Breeders. There are parallels, yes, yes, but it’s not that simple, not that clean-cut a thesis. For one, Melkbelly are rougher around the edges and more likely to lunge at you with the blade than carve out a careful refrain. (In short: no thank you, “Cannonball”.)

Yes, dueling guitarists (and real-life marriage partners) Miranda and Bart Winters unfurl incredibly addictive and hook-laden little measures for distorted guitar that call to mind Pod and Last Splash. And Miranda Winters can sometimes sound like a dead-ringer for Kim Deal, though her sometimes-sensual, sometimes-wicked delivery, Melkbelly being a product of Chicago, is as blunt as Liz Phair and as breathy as Cindy Dall. The Russian tube mics recently employed by the group do her wondrous voice justice and add roundness to the delivery. There, so it seems, the similarities end. Take “THC”, which opens the group’s second full-length LP, PITH, out last month. The song opens with an enthralling little bit of grungy plodding but quickly yields to a fluttery if fleeting harmoniousness in Miranda Winters’ honeyed soothsaying. It’s a shot across the bough: “Don’t get too comfortable / Know which way the ground is.”

Those sometimes-off-kilter shifts are wonderfully initiated and can be central to PITH, which is best when it pivots, often with its breakneck logic, between noise-rock abandon and the warmness of lo-fi pop. A song like “THC”, which eventually bleeds into full meltdown mode, places this odd brand of musical schizophrenia naked in front of the consumer, Melkbelly switching between tones and rites as quickly as they cycle time signatures. For the record, though – since we’re chatting up time signatures here – Melkbelly steers clear of the didacticism of sad-sack math-rock re-treads. Instead, they toy with time as a means of disorientation, like you’ve had a few too many, and the music is coursing through your veins like battery acid.

On some tracks, even the lines between these shifts get exacerbated, rightly amplified. On the otherwise wickedly funny“Sickeningly Teeth”, the group lurch between verses, sometimes slowing down and speeding up on cue and en masse (a la Shellac’s “New Number Order”) and sometimes ratcheting the maximum efficiency out of quirky, quiet/loud dynamics.

But PITH is more than a record that calls attention to the stitches that hold on its limbs. The excellent “Little Bug” and the light-footed “Season of the Goose” (kudos to drummer James Wetzel on this one) are the perfect marriages of grungy discord and pop melody. There’s even a two-part vocal harmony in the former. “Flatness”, though not the LP’s best track, almost unapologetically aims for the ear-worm heart of Rivers Cuomo.

Melkbelly are true to their roots and the familiar legacy of the quartet’s last LP, 2017’s Nothing Valley, with more aggressive fare, too, to be fair. In this vein, you’ll get “Stone Your Friends”, where dirgy stomps call to mind fellow noise-rockers Elephant Rifle, and the punchy “Mr. Coda”, which features some excellent bass/drums breakdowns. The song’s jammy denouement, which at times sounds bottomless, could use an editor, though. “Kissing Under Some Bats”, where Wetzel again steals the spotlight, is pure ’90s noise rock, with all the juicy connotations intended.

PITH, for all the attention it pays in getting the dressings and staging right, is best when it’s replacing one genre’s organs with another’s, concocting an interesting if beautifully flawed, kind of Frankenstein’s Monster. Like to whistle a catchy tune? Like to roar over a wall of crunchy guitars? Like your music to speak to your head as much as your hips? Melkbelly’s new LP will scratch all three itches. What better endorsement do you need? – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, May 12, 2020

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