[HEADPHONE MASTERPIECE] Opening your debut EP with a sampled snippet from 2001: A Space Odyssey proclaiming, "My God, it's full of stars!" is one bold, audacious move. It's a claim that's damn hard to live up to: The scene is set, expectations are suddenly sky-high, and you come off as just a wee bit pretentious. But after fully absorbing You Have to Hold On, the first set of recorded material from local experimental pop band Problems?, I see where the band is coming from: The quote is ambitious, and bold, and absurd. But so is the concept of a perfect debut record.
You Have to Hold On is just that, a nearly flawless 25 minutes of bent, fractured indie pop that feels miles removed from most of the stale compositions that give the genre a bad name. The album represents Problems?, which has since expanded beyond a duo, though Cory McCulloch (Xiu Xiu, Ten in the Swear Jar) played bass on one track and lent production assistance. That so much sound comes from just two people—multi-instrumentalists and singers Judge Bean and Ashley Mudra—is a shock at first, but it's also comforting to know that this type of forward-thinking music is still being produced in houses across the city.
To my ear, Problems? has a close kinship to the Xiu Xiu circa 2004's Fabulous Muscles, at least musically. You hear standard pop instruments here—guitar, organ, banjo—but it's the way they are used and augmented, with blasts of noise and rhythm and static in the background, that makes these songs so thrilling. Opener "KakersX2C" mutates into at least three different parts over the course of seven minutes, with just a bit of forlorn guitar squall in the background to hold it together. Both Bean and Mudra sing, repeating things like "In my dreams I sleep with you," before a huge, spiraling crescendo and pretty banjo-led outro as Mudra coos "You love me, you love me."
Bean mentioned to me that he spent two years endlessly writing and reworking the EP, and you can hear the care put into each and every figure; though You Have to Hold On consists of just five songs, it's more assured and varied than pretty much any local release this year. The only track that ever settles in one place, the gorgeous goth waltz "Death Machine," finds a slow rhythm and then just builds toward oblivion, with the phrase "Your hands feel so good in my hair," looped and eventually belted out by Mudra in an impassioned moment of clarity. It's one of the most gorgeous refrains I've heard all year, and the sign of a truly ambitious band attempting—and almost attaining—perfection. Kubrick would be proud.
Problems? plays Saturday, Nov. 27, at East End. 9 pm. Cover. 21+.