Los Angeles is a land of illusion—the line between sparkling glamour and empty artifice sometimes impossible to decipher. It’s this dichotomy that has influenced the music of mysterious duo Midnight Sister, leading them to create a debut that claws away with long, manicured nails at the cracks in the city’s plastic veneer.
Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian both grew up in L.A.—the city’s backlots and plentiful retro diners influencing their music as much as the city’s penchant for dreaming. As heard on their debut LP Saturn Over Sunset, it’s an appealing smoothie of sparkly pop, disco, 60s yé-yé, and hints of weirdo psychedelia that’s whipped up during the more accessible tracks, but something is a bit…off. Straight art-pop this is not.
The warped innocence of “Canary” kicks things off, as Balouzian’s wobbly keyboards and Giraffe’s narcotic vocals signal to the listener that they’re about to go on a very strange trip.
Before one can get their bearings, “Blue Cigar” floats in on musty lounge keys and champagne bubbles, it’s primly funky groove providing the only chance you’ll have to dance. Giraffe’s entrancing whisper, a reassuring bounce, and some fat sax accents providing the album’s high point.
On songs like “Leave You” and “The View From Gilligan’s Island” they borrow a bit of the baroque-pop, experimental spirit of The United States of America, though Balouzian’s compositions are more score-like. It’s the fever dreams of the U.K. band Broadcast that Midnight Sister swipe the most generously from, Giraffe’s vocals a funhouse mirror-image of Trish Keenan’s while a healthy dose of mellotron floats from track to track.
As cinematic an album as they come, filmic comparisons are almost easier to make. “The Drought” sounds like a Truffaut film, “The Crow” is filled with Hitchcock violins, and the hypnogogic haze that hangs over the length of the album has the same trance-like effect as the indulgent dream sequences at the end of Gene Kelly musicals. “Showgirl,” “Hitman,” “Clown”—even the song titles seem like characters out of a crackly film noir.
A bad dream in broad daylight, Saturn Over Sunset sounds most precisely like the diner scene in Mulholland Drive, or perhaps the tunnel scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The colors are a bit too bright, your shoulders are a bit too tense—the threat of danger in an unthreatening setting the most unnerving of all. It’s a stunning formula to be sure, but one that grows a bit prostrated the further you go down into the rabbit hole—the velvet-draped promise of “Blue Cigar” not kept.
After traveling through 13 tracks, unaware of how much time has passed or all the strange places in your mind you’ve traveled to, arriving at “Their Eyes” does have a very similar feeling to stepping out into the sunlight after the dark cocoon of the movie theatre—a little unsure of what you’ve just seen.