For the past few years, So Stressed was an intense and adventurous punk band from Sacramento. Their first album, 2015’s The Unlawful Trade of Greco-Roman Art, was a pummeling blast of hardcore and noise-rock. In 2017, they followed that up with Please Let Me Know, which is significantly catchier, but still sludgy and buzzy, like early Nirvana.
In the run-up to Please Let Me Know, So Stressed vocalist Morgan Fox hinted at his band’s interests beyond harsh sounds: “Ugly noise is cool,” he said, “but so is melody.”
And that brings us to the band’s third album, Pale Lemon, which finds Fox, drummer Kenneth Draper and guitarist Andrew Garcia trying on quiet, melodic songs for a (major) change. This is not So Stressed’s previous sound toned down a few notches or polished with cleaner production. This is a full 180-degree turn from relentless chaos to pretty folk, pop and even jazz.
In other words, credit these three guys for committing fully to their vision, even if it’s not quite perfectly realized. Opener “Heavy Gifts” unfolds at a leisurely pace: first quiet drone, then gentle guitars, then Fox’s echo-soaked vocals, singing softly about creaky knees and enduring love. On “Cream & Gold,” Fox’s voice is surrounded by blurry harmonies and set against a languid, descending guitar lick. It’s one of Pale Lemon’s understated peaks.
Elsewhere, “Onion Paper” and “Very Long Cloth” pick up the pace a bit; the latter’s rumble and raised voices are the closest thing here to So Stressed’s previous work. “Grape Skins” shimmers strangely, like you’re listening to Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle playing on a turntable in a cave behind a waterfall. And “Snowshoer” is a simple little gem built from acoustic guitar, plunky kalimba, an uncomplicated melody and adoration. “Turn the phone off all week. Forget everything,” Fox sings. “Warm feet. I don’t notice them when I look at you.”
Pale Lemon’s less successful songs happen to be clustered near its middle, and the album loses momentum as a result. “The Kicker” is instrumentally promising—a shadowy sort of alt-rock swagger—but its chorus is awkward. “Miniature Flag” is a straight-up jazz piece that putters around in circles and then settles into a static drone for a couple of minutes. And “Nodding in the Dark” is just a slog.
All in all, Pale Lemon is a good record by what we know to be a killer band with a strong creative backbone. Here at Paste, we don’t give out As for effort, but you’d better believe we’ll applaud a band that truly tries something entirely new in the face of elevated expectations. There aren’t many with those kinds of guts. On Pale Lemon, So Stressed shows off their guts and their range.