Album of the Week | Hotline TNT: Cartwheel

The band's sophomore album takes the bedrock of DIY community and turns it into an expressive and foundational shoegaze triumph.

Music Reviews Hotline TNT
Album of the Week | Hotline TNT: Cartwheel

Google “shoegaze” and click on images. I imagine you’ll see plenty of pictures of haze and pedal boards. Maybe some black and white photoshoots of bands like Slowdive and my bloody valentine, wearing their hair long enough to block out their eyes. Regardless of whether or not it’s true, shoegaze has an anti-social reputation. Even its name is further proof. The name originated because a crop of late ‘80s and early ‘90s artists stared at the ground when performing live, as they focused on getting the guitar pedal effects just right and avoiding eye contact with the audience in the process.

The truth is, shoegaze is as communal a genre as any. Music press labeled the London scene that essentially launched the style as “The Scene That Celebrates Itself.” Although they meant it in a derogatory way, the name applied. Shoegaze bands would go to each other’s shows and play in each other’s bands. They were “The Scene That Celebrates Itself,” not in a hoity-toity and self-congratulatory way, but because early shoegaze artists included and supported one another.

Over 30 years after that fertile era for shoegaze, Hotline TNT does justice to the genre’s communal roots. Their second album Cartwheel is a glowing achievement of what shoegaze is capable of. For the naysayers who tease the genre’s notorious introversion, Cartwheel is a fierce disproof. The record bundles together the distortion and crackle of classics like Loveless and Souvlaki with the ethos of community that has always been equally as important in the history of that misunderstood genre.

Hotline TNT is the project of Will Anderson, who has been bouncing around DIY scenes in North America for over a decade. His interconnectedness in indie communities from Vancouver to Minneapolis to Brooklyn shows up on Cartwheel. This guy has some serious practice in the art of intimate performances. The drum break into the chorus of “I Know You” smacks like the drummer is three feet away. “Maxine” basks in its layers of guitar that sound blown-out through small amps. “Spot Me” builds on a drum-and-bass beat until it smashes into what feels like the climax of a live set. In short, Cartwheel sounds like the best audio-engineered basement show you’ve ever been to.

On Hotline TNT’s 2021 debut Nineteen In Love, Anderson sounded distant. It was a rougher, darker album. But Cartwheel takes all the texture of Nineteen’s DIY-budget distortion and softens it without losing any of that growl or edge. It’s a remarkable act of balance–a cartwheeling gymnastic feat–to elevate Nineteen In Love’s grit without smoothing its edges or sanding it down.

2023 has already had a gauntlet of indie releases that experiment with explosive guitars, ‘90s alt rock and the palette of shoegaze. Wednesday cranked up the distortion with a southern country twang on Rat Saw God; glitch-pop artist yeule took Smashing Pumpkins’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to the uncanny valley on softscars; shoegaze heroes Slowdive and Blonde Redhead each returned with comeback records. But Hotline TNT’s interpretation of the genre sounds most in-line with the genre’s seminal records from 30 years ago. Cartwheel is textbook: gauzy guitars with disharmonic tuning and effusive, romantic and broad-stroked lyrics. It makes a damn good argument for why this sound is having any kind of resurgence in the first place.

Outside of what Cartwheel means or represents in the shoegaze canon, the record does the trick that has made the genre so enduring for over three decades: It imbues each wave of guitar and pulse of sound with Anderson’s emotiveness. Shoegaze sounds huge because it feels massive, a maxim Anderson commits to all across Cartwheel. When he admits “there’s a lot in this song that’s not in my diary” on “History Channel,” it comes as no surprise. It’s right there in the way he plays.

In a recent Pitchfork feature, Anderson succinctly summarized that Cartwheel is “about breaking hearts and being heartbroken.” But it’s not just gesturing towards heartbreak. Cartwheel memorializes the houses, basements and dives that he comes from. Anderson references the friends, romantic partners and even musical equipment by name.“Kyle, do you wanna be in front with me?” he asks on “BMX”; “Michael I’m trying,” he insists on “Son In Law”; “Sounds too easy played through Peavy” he remarks on “Out of Town,” referencing the instrument and equipment company. Just like the shoegazers of “The Scene That Celebrates Itself,” Anderson brings along his DIY community for the ride. It’s that bedrock that makes Cartwheel such an expressive and foundational album. And one that’s not just a triumph for Anderson and Hotline TNT, but for shoegaze itself.

Andy Steiner is a writer, musician, and works in the music industry. When he’s not reviewing albums, you can find him collecting ‘80s Rush merchandise. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter.

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