Since releasing their debut EP, The Meat of the Fruit, last summer, the Sour Notes have quickly become local favorites, and with good reason. Principle Note Jared Boulanger crafts beautiful and questioning melodies that are rife with a direct pop angst. Yet that angst is sweetly plied, never over-bearing or melodramatic, and the quartet continually upends its pop stylings with unexpected samples and keyboard bursts that manage to keep the songs fascinating through repeated listenings, even as the short eight song album is over much too quickly.
There is an undeniable Death Cab for Cutie earnestness to many of the songs, bolstered by Boulanger’s Ben Gibbard-nodding vocals that are youthful and slightly sentimental. There is also a sense of the New Year’s hazy sound in the guitar tones and kind of sad suburban angst that seems to define the Kadane Brothers’ musings. While those bands best describe the Sour Notes overall aesthetic, Received in Bitterness also proves that they have much more to their music, however.
Opener “Psychological Thriller” kicks off with a skuzzed up barrage of guitars and synths that is altogether unexpected before settling into a more mellow space with Boulanger crooning “All that I love, I pretend you are not.” The willful denial of the song reawakens throughout the album, and in fact reiterates what Boulanger told us about the album’s title in their recent Sound Off: “The title comes from being in situations where you might accept or be vulnerable to things happening to you, and letting them happen, even though you might just be tricking yourself knowingly.” Yet the Sour Notes also seem to revel in that kind of conscious obliviousness, creating a disillusioned tension throughout.
The piano bop and garage pop of “Holy Terror” may be the most divergent of the tracks, giving the album an early lift before “Is It Happening?” swirls into a more stricken pop territory with subdued horns and a crescendoeing falsetto vocal push. As Boulanger extends “I don’t think I’ll ever learn,” that hint of the New Year comes full to the fore. Like their stunning cover of Jawbreaker’s “Accident Prone,” the song “It’s Just a Cut…” unravels the sad, youthful emo-tint (in a good way) with steady aggressive riffs and a pop-surging chorus. And “Double Negative” carries the kind of emotional heft anchoring Blake Schwarzenbach’s songs and, though much more plaintive in it’s piano-based balladry, actually wouldn’t sound out of place being played by a band like Jets to Brazil.
Even as those type of tunes gesture toward a sound that could easily break outside of Austin, there are equally compelling moments on Received in Bitterness that are surprising and strange. “Your Pretty Sphinx Voice” samples French lines from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” over trippy ambience that eventually pummels a driving beat into a softly swooning heartbreak and reverb-hollowed well. It’s a surreal intro, one that seems to drift into another plane of stoned loneliness, and though at first somewhat disruptive within the overall album as it’s dreamy centerpiece, it becomes a mesmerizing suture between it’s two halves and the most interesting song in relation to the whole.
The female vocals that sparsely harmonize throughout the album also offer a perfect shading to Boulanger’s bared emotionalism, a calm counterpoint that actually seems to hearken what is going on outside of the solipsistic view of Boulanger’s disillusioned conceptions of relationships and the world around him. It also makes sense, then, that the penultimate song, “What In the World?,” becomes a plea of “will you wake up?” and the ripping from respite becomes a disorienting and hash cataclysm that melts into the quick closing warp of backward loops on “…Then Who Does?” The female voice faintly calling “If I’d have known…” brings us back to the surface, but the dreamscape that the Sour Notes have unveiled make you immediately want to crawl back into their beautifully subconscious world, as hurt and confused as it may be. - Doug Freeman (Austin Sound)