There’s something oddly comforting about the sort of lo-fi baroque pop of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, The Unicorns, and early Modest Mouse. The ragged performances, unconventional instruments, and sometimes (intentionally) clumsy engineering somehow transcend their shortcomings (if you can call them that) to speak a more delightful and authentic message than could be attained with conventional industry wisdom. Take any Pavement song and imagine it recorded by a band of Nashville session players, and you’ll understand what I mean.
New York State’s Battle Ave. are devout acolytes of this rich tradition, and I Saw the Egg, their first album in six years, is a rich new gospel to add to the canon of lo-fi indie rock.
That odd comfort fills every second of I Saw the Egg—largely as a survival technique. The album is informed largely by two life-altering events: the COVID-19 pandemic and the birth of bandleader Jesse Doherty’s daughter. All the anxiety and joy and stillness and chaos of those events are captured in an emotional fidelity that is somehow clearer with the haze of less-than-perfect engineering choices. From the gentle domesticity of tracks like “ring” and “tether” to the full-band grooves of “s w i s h” and “tower” to the indie rock outbursts of “temple” and “nite lite,” every second of this record is meant to be felt deeply.
Much of the record is built on lazily strummed acoustic guitars, which are often aided by effects-drenched stabs of lead guitar and synthesizer loops. Drum duties are shared by a sparsely played drum set and beat machines that sound like they were borrowed from an old Casio keyboard rather than programmed. Doherty’s voice, which is rather ragged and warbly itself, is often distant and buried. There are also saxophones, Mellotron strings, and experimental percussion performed by producer Kevin McMahon on his homemade MIDI controller named “Sheila.” But these sonic decisions seem almost impressionistic, more concerned with conveying the emotional weight of the music than the aural clarity, which is perfect for their place with tape-loving indie label Friend Club Records.
I remember being a young teen getting into underground music for the first time, and there was a sense among my peers that the uglier something sounded, the more authentic it was. Well-recorded follow-ups were dismissed in favor of the gritty rawness of the self-recorded debuts. Looking back now, I was pretty far off base on a lot of those debates (in no universe is the Juliana Theory’s Dawson High split better than Emotion Is Dead). But in the case of I Saw the Egg, teen me was actually kinda right. This is the sort of record whose message is conveyed so much more clearly specifically because it isn’t polished. Glitzy production and flashy guitar solos would only obscure the emotional core of what Battle Ave. is saying. Rather, it feels like catching up over coffee with an old friend for the first time since the world shut down, with all of the bittersweetness that that conversation would hold.