This is the fun part, when a promising band seems to emerge fully formed, from out of nowhere, with a great debut album. Consider Melkbelly, the affably disruptive Chicago quartet of singer-guitarist Miranda Winters, guitarist Bart Winters (her husband), bassist Liam Winters (his brother) and drummer James Wetzel. Cramming what should be an unworkable heap of concepts and sounds into a deliciously volatile 35 minutes, Nothing Valley is a bracing blend of scraping noise and tender melody, not unlike the recipe used by Speedy Ortiz. Appropriately, it’s issued on the Carpark Records imprint Wax Nine, supervised by Speedy boss Sadie Dupuis.
They didn’t actually materialize out of thin air, of course. Pre-band, the spouses performed together as the folksier Coffin Ships, and since 2014, Melkbelly has left a progressively more intriguing trail, starting with the record Pennsylvania, followed by some singles. From the beginning, all the elements of Nothing Valley were evident – jarring, intricate guitars, insistent beats and deceptively pretty melodies tucked inside the ruckus – but the pieces didn’t fit together consistently. Now they mesh beautifully.
Although she can screech effectively when the situation requires, Miranda Winters usually sings with a poise reminiscent of, yes, Sadie Dupuis, as well as Bettie Serveert’s Carol van Dijk, seemingly unruffled by raging storms. She also takes a cue from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, an expert at appearing to articulate clearly while remaining almost totally unintelligible. Rendered as a grimy roar by deft producer Dave Vettraino, Nothing Valley captures exciting details of the guitars and drums, yet leaves Winters’ voice just fuzzy enough to induce uncertainty.
Even when a lyric sheet supplies the words, literal meanings can remain elusive, with impressionistic allusions setting the tone. The toe-tapping “Twin Lookin Motherfucker” looks askance at bro culture dudes “showing up at festivals to spit, chew and smoke/Talking about their mama like ‘that babe is the most’”; the ominous anthem “Cawthra” feels soaked in alienation and frustration, noting how “constant conversation gets you down” and reflecting on “being blindfolded and forced to stay out late.”
Wetzel’s wonderfully deranged clatter underscores the challenge of maintaining the delicate balance between entropy and order that makes Melkbelly so arresting. He attacks the drums with furious energy, stretching the songs close to the breaking point without losing the beat and echoing the mad inventions of Keith Moon or Mitch Mitchell.
Now the hard part: Living up to the expectations raised by a dazzling premiere on that difficult second album. Given the messy sprawl of ideas Melkbelly wrestles into shape on Nothing Valley, they’re probably equal to the task.