Katie here again and, might I say, I find groundhogs unpredictable, so while I’m hoping that poor fellow got it right this time… I know some dogs who are having Phil Stew if this whole “winter ends soon” thing doesn’t pan out. (If that sounds like a threat, it should: I’m watching you, groundhog. Staying forever vigilant. Yours truly, #katiemullinsagainstwinter.)
Today, I am actually going to allow myself to get ahead of myself and say that one of my favorite things about introducing a new band to the Underwater Sunshine family is that you guys never, as new artist Petal says in “Something from Me,” “deal in smugness about everything I care about.” Not to go too far into my personal history or self, as God knows Kiley Lotz (writer, guitar, vocals for Petal) stands very much on her own without my window dressing, but I’ve been examining my own personal history with enthusiasm: why and when I determined it was a liability or a weakness, why I only share my true excitement with people who’ve been carefully vetted, and what exactly is so damn scary about women who care about things deeply?
And then it was the 25th anniversary of Tori Amos’ Under the Pink and I went, “Oh. I remember. We’re scary because if we care enough to get excited, we care enough to tell the truth later, too. And there is nothing scarier than a woman whose narrative you can’t control.”
Kiley Lotz — with the deepest, greatest respect — cannot be controlled by anything. In fact, the whole band has figured out there are many different ways to sound strong. They can definitely be a rollicking, tour-de-force rock act. Her voice, especially on live tracks, is half-Fiona Apple at her strongest and half-Cranberries when she allows other emotions to crack through. (I really encourage looking up their YouTube video for “Sooner” on KXPN) But they’ve also learned how to maximize her crystal-clear volume as if it was a mirror. She is strong and clear, sure, against her guitars but bare and exposed against a fragile piano or something equally sparse. It makes it impossible as a listener to shy away from lyrics like, “I can’t sleep/ But you all want something from me” or “It’s the moment when you don’t look me in the eye/ It’s the silent claws of the demons at my back/ It’s the silence after I finish washing the dishes/ It’s the afterthought that I might be your best friend” (*These are all still lyrics from “Something from Me,” the song I mentioned in the first paragraph).
Honestly, any single song on both LPs, Shame and Magic Gone, is strong enough to carry an entire essay so let’s just talk about how great Magic Gone is and how ridiculous Petal’s forthcoming set at Underwater Sunshine is going to be. The record kicks off with one of its heavier musical numbers, “Better than You”, though I’d argue that, at least emotionally, every single song on the record packs a solid punch. The song seems to be a list of the kind of suggestions anyone who has ever had the pleasure of trying their hands at an arts-based career has had lobbed at them:
And maybe if you were harsh?
Maybe if you weren't you
People would seem to care about
What it is you even do?
Maybe if you tried harder
To seem like you didn't love it but you do
But they're better than you
Don't give into the fodder
And don't pander a smile
And give yourself a second
And give yourself a while
But believe all that you hear
And assume that they're all watching
And force some words out of your mouth
While all their eyes are watching
If it feels like mixed messages… well, either you already know that’s what it’s like or you probably could ask the nearest musician/writer/painter around you if sometimes they were given mixed messages on their way to whatever their personal definition of “success” was. Lotz simply collects all of the garbage (some of it useful; some of it not), puts it in a row, and sings it up against music that would fit on college radio now or any time in the last thirty years.
Since so many of the songs on the record are full of piano-based melodies that play perfectly into her vocal clarity, it seems wrong not to talk about the bookending of this song with the last track, “Stardust.” The instruments build throughout the song and so does the tension in her voice and somehow it all makes sense: the record is a slow-motion car crash (in one case, literally: “Comfort” falls into the chorus, “And you could barely drive/ When I said I didn’t fucking care anymore,” an almost-direct opposite of Liz Phair’s iconic “Divorce Song”). That said, the tension here isn’t that of a relationship that’s falling apart; it’s about looking back to the one or two moments that were salvageable, the moments before things got bad, which are so, so much more difficult to remember and think about than the bad moments—
The stardust in you is so evident
I wish I could kiss every speck of it
Remnants of The beginning now that we are at the end
You're skeptical of sentiment, sentiment
Now we've made our way through each other
Now we're left with no clothes
Making mistakes and getting guarded
I can't say, I can't say I didn't love you, love you
Now we're living in shitty apartments
With mismatched dishes, unlike our parents
Maybe we'd make good parents?
Maybe not, I can't say
Ooh I can't say, ooh I can't say
I didn't love you
Lotz does something else incredibly clever here: the idea, “mismatched dishes/ unlike our parents” is something that draws a generational line, and it’s a true one. So many of Petal’s listeners will be people who live in shitty apartments and have mismatched dishes (I’m feeling a little judged, so don’t open my cabinets), but whose parents did have matching dishes, and probably a backyard, and maybe a pension?
But there’s the trick in Petal’s music: while always perfectly relevant to the story at hand, it’s also all building to that last line— “I can’t say I didn’t love you.”
Oh, but God, you get that she wants to say that. She wants the boldness, the belief that it could have never happened, that this was the only way either of them could be happy. But that’s never fully resolved. Even in songs like the more desperate “Carve,” Lotz says, “And I wish I could unsee your kindness/ Every upward turn of your mouth/ But I cannot so I'll bury it in sound/ In grace, in erasing myself” before saying, “And God, will they love me if I am honest?/ I would starve until every bone would show/ Just to feel a little lighter/ And still avoid the truth.”
Would that be easier? Probably. But instead of doing that, Petal made a whole record about the truth, even though God knows there is nothing scarier than a woman ready both to love with everything…and then to tell the truth about anything.
In fact, Lotz has one more lyric on the subject, this one from the upbeat, musically taut “Tightrope”:
“The truth is just a piece of coal dressed as gold.”