Matthew Caws (of Nada Surf) and Juliana Hatfield (of Blake Babies, Some Girls and The Lemonheads) have proven, career-long track records of writing solid “alternative” indie rock, so it’s no surprise that their debut record together under the moniker of Minor Alps, Get There, is a thoughtful, interesting record (about what it means to be thoughtful and interesting).
What is kind of interesting is how the two of them mostly eschew the conventional alt-rock sound that has more or less defined their careers up to this point; instead, they chose to focus on writing a record based on creating a specific mood through the use of ambient keyboard sounds, distant digital drums and gently plucked guitars. That’s not to say that there aren’t grittier moments where the duo’s alternative pop-rock backgrounds shine through, as on songs like “I Don’t Know What to Do with My Hands” and, especially, “Mixed Feelings,” but for the most part, this project shows of a new side to both of these songwriters by adding a more adult-indie edge to their music.
Minor Alps made a conscious decision to upset people’s expectations by placing the song “Buried Plans” right at the beginning of the album. Opening with an electronic drum beat and some ringing synthesizer/keyboard sounds before quickly bringing in a sparse, haunting acoustic guitar, the song (and by extension, the album) immediately separates itself from Caws and Hatfield’s previous work, while also establishing an important tone for Get There.
More often than not, Minor Alps employ these atmospheric and artificial keyboard and drum sounds to create Get There’s rhythmic underbelly, and on top of that they frequently add a layer of un- or just lightly distorted guitar with generously applied chorus effects, all of which comes together to create a sort of cold, isolating distance between the music and the listener. And this feeling really captures the essence of what the album is all about, which is something like exploring the contrasts between someone’s internal perception of the world and how to address that understanding within the context of reality.
The distance that Minor Alps creates then serves to provide the listener with an emotional starting point for the band’s lyrical themes. In other words, it helps to establish what feels like a separation from a tangible reality, leaving us to feel almost trapped within the headspace of Hatfield and Caws and sharing in their sense of detachment and isolation. The listener is really only given any respite from this through the common presence of an acoustic guitar, which seems to serve as the only apparent link between this isolation and tangible reality.
This general mood of detachment is heightened by lyrics like, “Where your head is is where your home is” (from “Far from the Roses”) or the excellent metaphor at the beginning of “I Don’t Know What to Do with My Hands,” where the duo sings, “The couch is an island/A desert oasis/The room is a spaceship/And you’re an undiscovered planet.” In some way, every track on Get There seems to start from this place of internal examination and trying to figure out how one relates to the world.
For instance, in the dreamy “Wish You Were Upstairs,” Hatfield and Caws seem to be singing about what it’s like when your career as a songwriter/musician has sort of plateaued and your star hasn’t really been “rising” for years. “It’s so easy to stop trying/When no one is watching you dying,” they sing.
However, despite this largely being an album about isolation and the internal struggles that come with it, Hatfield and Caws sing nearly every line on Get There together, as in simultaneously. Naturally, I expected the two to trade off lead vocal duties on the album, but instead they share almost every lyric, never fighting for the spotlight and often using this dynamic to create really beautiful, moving harmonies, such as at the end of “Buried Plans.”
Ultimately, these shared vocals subtly establish in the listener the understanding that ironically enough, these occasional feelings of loneliness and isolation and the unrelenting belief that no one will ever really understand your genius are something that pretty much everybody has in common. Sure, Hatfield and Caws are singing about themselves and from their perspective, but they’re always referencing a party outside of themselves, always addressing some vague, unidentified “you.” And by sharing, rather than splitting, vocal duties, they reinforce this idea that the thing that connects the two of them is how isolated they feel most of the time.