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Peel Dream Magazine - Agitprop Alterna Music Album Reviews

Bearing a distinct resemblance to My Bloody Valentine, the Brooklyn shoegaze band’s second album is a patchwork of brainy indie-pop influences with its own absurdist charm.

For as long as Stereolab have written songs about the ills of capitalism, and Broadcast have named lofty indie-pop albums after Gertrude Stein books, there’s been modish art-school types making records that feel like the musical equivalent of a tattered paperback in a back pocket. It’s the kind of lush, atmospheric rock music that might involve buying a Mellotron off Craigslist, naming your band after a famous British radio host, and writing lyrics that could double as poetry in the right context. Peel Dream Magazine, the brainchild of Brooklyn’s Joe Stevens, fits neatly into this lineage. Agitprop Alterna, the band’s second album, is a 38-minute shoegaze record that feels a bit like a term paper on Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx, written to a soundtrack of Tropicália, motorik, and library music.
Out of the gate, Agitprop Alterna is a bookish listen that doesn’t sound particularly unique. At first, it’s tempting to call it My Bloody Valentine karaoke: The endless guitar distortion and the well-matched vocals of Stevens and copilot Jo-Anne Hyun distinctly recall Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher. With meditative vocals, outstretched layers of guitar dissonance, and chugging synthesizer, opener “Pill” is prime Loveless pastiche. “Tongue/Pill/I chew/It’s all I do,” Hyun and Stevens sing in calming harmony. The implication is obvious—we’ve all gone numb, relying on drugs to dull the pain of everyday life—yet the song is so undeniably catchy and relaxing that it produces exactly that kind of anesthetic effect. The same can be said for the rest of the record; Agitprop Alterna might be full of grand ideas, but it doesn’t bombard you with information. More often than not, the lyrical content is on the simpler side.
Agitprop Alterna can best be understood as the sum of its influences: a patchwork of brainy indie-pop music from the past 30 years that flows together seamlessly. Soothing drones, a tranquilized drum machine, and Painful-era Yo La Tengo flourishes allow “It’s My Body” to chirp along like a baby bird. The snarky “NYC Illuminati,” one of the record’s least conceptually legible offerings, is dotted in guitar reverb by way of Galaxie 500 and full of late-night stoner truisms like “you stand for nothing at all” or “dressed in fantastic/illusions of starvation.” The equally lofty “The Bertolt Brecht Society,” an homage to the German theater theoretician and playwright, is constructed around a serene vintage organ and a delicate bass groove. Lovely and introspective, it feels as though it were written while deep in thought.

“Up and Up,” the album’s last track, is its finest moment. Competing synth lines rest upon one another like layers of oil in water, and a plodding guitar brightens the scene like light through stained glass. “There are answers the theater will provide/For shallow faces taught to sleep through bigger questions,” Hyun and Stevens sing, summoning Brecht once more. Perhaps those faces belong to us, the song seems to say. It’s a striking—albeit slightly goofy—line on an album with plenty of similarly absurd brain-teasers. Like all the best shoegaze records, Agitprop Alterna is a heady, inward-looking listen. But if you’re able to zone out, or simply to begin walking with no destination in mind, its oversized and introspective ideas make welcome company.

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