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Soul Low Give Bitterness a Bright Spin on 'Cheer Up'

Jul. 25, 2017
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I should probably lay off comparing Soul Low to the Violent Femmes, but sometimes they make it too easy. It’s not even that the two bands sound all that alike—Soul Low draw from a much more modern pool of indie-rock influences than the Femmes—but like Milwaukee’s most famous band, they were in high school when they wrote a nervy, near-perfect debut album seeped in the anxieties and frustrations of adolescence. Like the Femmes, they’re led by a singer with a braying, love-it-or-hate-it voice, and, like the Femmes, they’re kind of into jazz—even if it only shows up intermittently on their records.

Last year, Soul Low tossed another big one onto the ever-growing pile of Violent Femmes similarities when they followed up their catchy, well-received debut with a much more difficult, divisive sophomore album. For the Femmes, that sophomore album was 1984’s Hallowed Ground, a conflicted rumination on religion that, at the time, critics hated and fans rejected. Soul Low’s sophomore effort, Nosebleeds, was far better received but no less of a gambit, frequently swapping the brisk pop of their debut, Uneasy, for a tumultuous, claustrophobic splatter of anxious rock. It was a bold gambit that could have easily stalled the momentum the group had been building, both inside the city and beyond.

“With Nosebleeds, we were so nervous about what the reception would be, because we’d put so much time into it, and it was kind of a weird, darker record for us,” says bassist Sam Gehrke. “But we put it out and people liked it.”

That took some of the pressure off for the group’s new album, Cheer Up, which comes out this week on Gloss Records, just a year after the previous one. The record is a return to form, of sorts, more of a piece with the bright, chipper pop of Uneasy and the pair of high-spirited EPs that followed that debut. “This one is more commercially accessible,” Gehrke says. “There’s more pop tunes on it. It’s a little more catchy.”

Even if the music is more upbeat, though, the songs themselves stay true to the band’s usual sweet-sour view of the world. Two of the album’s catchiest songs, “Bad Set of Moods” and “Chancing It,” are about depression and suicide, respectively, while “Sad Boy Freestyle” calls out Milwaukee, the city that’s been pretty damn good to the band, for its hypocrisy and complacency. There’s also a song about Jeffrey Dahmer.

Cheer Up’s cover serves as a metaphor, of sorts, for those sweet-on-the-surface, bitter-underneath songs. It’s a photo of what at first looks to be a paradise, a picturesque spa with crystal clear water and bright flowers. A closer look, though, reveals a far sadder tableau: The spa is actually a hotel’s pool area; the flowers have been painted on the walls (rather poorly), and the pool’s white tiles are outlined with dirtied caulk, darkened by grit and grime. A safety rules sign hangs above the hot tub—presumably warning anybody with heart disease, diabetes, high or low blood pressure or any serious illness to consult with a doctor before entering—while the outside windows show the unmistakably barren, bone-white sky of Wisconsin the middle of winter.

“It’s pretty upon first viewing, but when you delve deeper, it’s a lot more depressing, and most of the songs we write are an extension of that,” Gehrke says. “We can go on stage and play these songs that seem like fun, party pop tunes, but at the same time we’re releasing these demons through them. That’s always been a really cathartic thing for us.”

Soul Low play an album release show for Cheer Up at the Polish Falcon with opener Cairns on Saturday, Aug. 12 at 7 p.m.


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