Even in the afterglow of chillwave’s crest, nostalgia continues to be pervasive as a theme and aesthetic construct in contemporary indie pop. The warped and faded sound, loosed from its bedrock of vaguely New Wave synthesizers, has proven an effective, applied to chamber instruments.
Gem Club’s principal duo, pianist and singer Christopher Barnes and cellist Kristen Drymala, offer none of the ‘80s revivalist tendencies that marked chillwave’s first wave. They don’t dress-up contemporary R&B the way Active Child or How To Dress Well do. Still, there’s a common link between those contemporaries and the resonant, melancholic cuts Gem Club has assembled on its full-length debut.
Playing constantly as an acceptance-stage reminiscence, Breakers offers a resolved bleariness and pained nostalgia. Barnes’ lyrics are preoccupied with regret and remorse, as if everything that happened until this moment was better but falsely so, and as if the emotional valley in which his songs wallow is a resolute first step to something better.
It can be a compelling, if not necessarily pleasant, place to dwell for an album’s duration. And the sounds Gem Club compiles here are welcoming enough to justify the LP’s 37 minutes and 41 seconds.
Both members’ classical training (Barnes at Berklee and Drymala at the Boston Conservatory) reveal themselves in the graceful movements of their melodies, the minimalist impulse for sustained tones and deliberate pacing, and the film-score moodiness of their arrangements. “I Heard The Party” swells into its refrain, building from an insistent, plodding chord and bolstered by restrained vocal harmony. “Breakers,” similarly, builds itself on top of a repeated piano phrase. The song, then, relies on Barnes’ warm and whispery falsetto, the swooping lines of Drymala’s cello, and delicately placed auxiliary percussion to go beyond a pensive riff.
Like the similarly drowsy Papercuts, Gem Club begs immersion of its listener; and like Papercuts, it’s sometimes asking too much. As Barnes’ lyrics bleed into each other, the timbre of his voice, a welcoming if not powerful falsetto, overwhelms any narrative. Nostalgic phrases poke through enough to convey the songs’ themes, but without attentive listening, offer little in the way of detail. Abstract titles like “Black Ships” and “252” offer little aid. The wallowing threatens to overwhelm any momentum.
But near Breakers’ end “252” offers the album’s most compelling moment. “This terrible anatomy/ will surely get the best of me,” Barnes confesses, before finally letting his voice rise beyond a pretty mumble, and past the other side of clear enunciation. As the song details the decay of a relationship for reasons Barnes’ speaker clearly regrets, his dramatically impenetrable delivery in the chorus delivers the album’s most powerful emotional wallop. It’s a rare gem, though. “252” delivers more than Breakers, as a whole, dares to promise.
Most often, Gem Club seems content to wallow in its pretty tones. Sometimes, that’s enough. But the dramatic release of “252”’s chorus indicates this band might be—and should be—capable of serving more than mere prettiness.