There’s nothing better than a band fully aware of their sound—not in the sense of knowing their limitations, but knowing their strengths so well that they can deliver as many satisfying moments as possible. Courtney Garvin and Connor Mayer know they have you wrapped around their finger with the steamy self-described “harsh twee” of their new project Gum Country—or at least it sounds like they do. Pulling from noise, avant pop, college rock and classic indie, it’s clear they know their stuff. After all, this isn’t Garvin’s first indie-pop outing. She played lead guitar in The Courtneys, a Vancouver trio who released two full-length albums of fuzzy power pop—most recently 2017’s The Courtneys II. Drawing on Flying Nun bands like 3Ds and The Bats (as well as Sarah Records groups like Brighter and Heavenly), they fittingly found themselves releasing music for the classic Kiwi indie label as well.
While The Courtneys’ sound is centered primarily on driving, harmony-laced indie-pop, Gum Country push this sound even further on their debut LP Somewhere. Front and center, Gavin ramps up the fuzz, and Mayer adds eccentric synth flourishes—making for a sound that’s more mature, but as equally carefree as before. The project began in Vancouver with some lo-fi four-track recordings, before relocating to Los Angeles where they recorded the album, and it’s pretty clear their lo-fi origins didn’t get lost in the final versions.
The centerpiece of Somewhere is the title track—which landed a spot in Paste’s best songs of the year so far thanks to its delectable, circling riff, which mingles perfectly with Garvin’s off-the-cuff, washed-out vocals and Mayer’s fried synths. Throughout the album, their forceful dissonance gives their playful lyrics a melancholic backbone and a jolt of energy. As far as lo-fi vigor goes, Gum Country leave it all out on the field, or in the case of “Tennis (I Feel Ok),” the court.
Garvin’s guitar work ranges from muscular to free-flowing, and there’s no doubt it’s the star of the show. “The Queen Rules” and “I Don’t Stay Up” are full of swaggering, rhythmic power with room to breathe, while “Pills” and “Jungle Boy” lean into heady shredding. Garvin’s echoing, bleary riffs are so potent that they border on psychedelic, especially on the latter two tracks. Their grimy guitar racket, laden with purposeful melodies and rhythmic intuition, is exactly what you’d want to hear blaring from a garage or a smoky club. They’re the kind of band that you’d imagine people starting zines about—they’re cool and good-hearted, weird enough to stand out, but accessible, and armed with dazed hooks that dance around your head for days.
Their dense guitar drone gets a sizable boost from Mayer’s compressed, buoyant synths, which are lighter on their feet than Garvin’s chugging guitar onslaught. As brief as the noodling synths of “I Don’t Stay Up” might be, its nimble pop bliss and the keyboards on the subsequent track “Pills” give it a more understated, contemplative lift. Their sounds are even bolder on “Brain Song” and “Talking To My Plants,” which go full-on intergalactic with their synth tones.
These songs wouldn’t soar quite as much as they do if Garvin’s lyrics weren’t so bittersweet and full of imagination. Lyrics about being stuck in a rut (“Somewhere”), getting goofy with greenery (“Talking To My Plants”), skipping parties (“I Don’t Stay Up”) or using sports as an escape (“Tennis (I Feel Ok)”) will connect with indie-pop fans of any age. Aided by her pop-centric, plainspoken delivery, Garvin’s humor is charming, relatable and always level-headed. Questions like “Is there a brain inside my head?” and “I’m talking to my plants / Or are they talking to me?” aren’t the lines of a bumbling stoner, but, rather, a playful character who finds meaning and refuge in the surreal.
Though they draw heavily from ’80s and ’90s groups, Gum Country are a product of 2020. Their songs will inspire freakouts and giggling fits, and being such a band’s band, it’s plausible that someone would hear their detailed pop songs with great cult influences and start their own “harsh twee” group. You’d be a fool to write off Gum Country for their at-ease aura—people spend millions of dollars trying to become this carefree and never get there.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno.