Lindsey Jordan, who records as Snail Mail, turns in an impressive debut that nods both to the past and future of the storied independent label Matador Records. A devoted guitar student since the age of five—and one who takes school so seriously that she got a note from her principal to perform at the annual South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas—the 18-year-old writes songs rooted in the 90s-era indie-pop of artists (and Matador vets) such as Liz Phair and Helium. In fact, Helium’s Mary Timony just so happened to serve as Jordan’s recent guitar teacher. On Lush, the upstart’s songs are confessional, and as well-polished as they may be, Jordan lets them dip and rise with the shifting emotions of her direct, tell-it-like-it-is lyrics. You get the sense she’s constantly in conversation with the audience, her bandmates, and her own guitar playing. And yet Jordan also remains part of an exciting moment in independent rock. In 2018, female and female-led acts. These artists are reclaiming a genre that long put boys first, and doing so with songs that proudly celebrate a woman’s point of view. Jordan could fit comfortably on a bill with her labelmate Lucy Dacus, who shares Jordan’s penchant for quick turns of phrase and meticulous guitar work. Courtney Barnett can be a bit more sarcastic, yet also displays a deep affection for the 90s. And Soccer Mommy works in similar, dreamy ways by emphasizing tunes brimming with depth.
A key to Jordan’s success on Lush relates to how she balances seemingly conflicting emotions, even full-on owning confusion. In fact, the more disorder, the more self-assured Jordan appears . Take “Full Control,” where a lovely and languid rhythm lays the groundwork for a vocal performance in which Jordan makes a casual, slacker-like approach feel completely cool. She sings, “I’m in full control / I’m not lost / Even when it’s love / Even when it’s not,” possessing the blissful confidence of youth that all of us hope we never lose. It’s the sort of song that would be perfect for Enid, the lead character of 2001 film Ghost World. Enid is obsesses with music and pop culture, and tends to get herself in emotionally stressful situations—all of which she handles with enviable self-reliance.
A curious facet of Lush—and one that makes Jordan an artist to definitely worth watching develop—is how this relatively brief work, at 10 songs and 36 minutes, manages to feel completely patient. She’s not afraid to stretch songs past the 5-minute mark, and even relatively svelte tunes—take the slightly longer-than-two-minute “Let’s Find an Out”—still feel as if Jordan is taking her time. The trait owes to the exquisite nature of her guitar playing. The latter song teems with circular patterns, possessing an ornate melody that would be equally at home in a rock club or a chamber hall. The trade-off is that the album requires relatively close listening. Hooks aren’t blunt, and rarely does Jordan let songs build to a roar.
But she likely has a whole career ahead of her to fine-tune her arranging skills. For now, there’s plenty to admire. Lead single, and album standout “Pristine,” could be three or four different songs in one. Like Timony’s work in Helium, Jordan’s guitar—its tone, its pace—responds almost instinctively to her lyrics. A crisp strummer soon turns into a trot and then, Jordan lets her excitement lead to more exclamatory moments. Other artists would likely ride such riffs and revisit them, but Jordan moves on. She has a story to tell, and she won’t let typical song structures stand in her way.
Her tales often involve young heartache and the dramas of teenagerhood. “I know myself,” she hollers on “Pristine,” letting her vocals show a bit of grit, “and I’ll never love anyone else.” Such sentiments have been echoed or insisted upon by many a teen, but whether we believe her—or even if Jordan believes herself—matters not. For in the same song, she proves wise beyond her years when she declares, “Is there any better feeling than coming clean?”
While Lush isn’t an album that will knock you over with instantly irresistible melodies, it does something even better: Putting the listener inside an artist’s head, and showing how every shifting thought has a guitar note to match.
By extension, the record’s title, Lush, proves an apt description of the sonics. The soundscape is warmly balanced, enveloping, and nicely layered, if just a bit too diffuse for its own good. The guitar playing sings, but Jordan’s vocals should be more distinct in the mix. Alas, the black vinyl isn’t flat, and plays back with unwanted noise during several tracks. Matador, however, provides a classy and colorful glossy jacket, complete with a thick inner sleeve featuring lyrics.
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