Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “All I Do Is Lie,” “Sincerely Yours,” “They’ll Never,” “Eyes Without A Face”
The B-52’s closed their seminal self-titled album with a cover of Petula Clark’s wide-eyed and optimistic hit “Downtown,” capping an album of arty and unprecedented new wave wildness with a taste of familiarity. The cover replaced Clark’s cheeriness with a wiry, firespitting snarl, a helluva way to not just cap one of the most iconic new wave albums of all time, but a kind of firm reminder that the thing you had just previously listened to is about to upend a small part of music.
I’m not going to get lost in similar hyperbole over Stef Chura’s excellent sophomore album MIDNIGHT, mostly because this isn’t the musical landscape of 1979. But similarly to THE B-52’S, perhaps the easiest way to discuss the Detroit indie rocker’s latest album is by working backwards—after all, who has the audacity to close their record on a cover, let alone one as dogged and rag-tagged as her jagged and cutting take on Billy Idol’s perpetually underrated hit “Eyes Without A Face.” Just like the cover of “Downtown,” it so wildly pulls the song in a different direction—transitioning brilliantly from Idol’s schmaltzy, pounding, synthwave heater to a grungy, empty bar heartbreaker—that you immediately go back and reassess everything that came before it on MIDNIGHT, and how special it feels in that moment.
Crunchy and catchy with an eruption of guitar parts in the chorus that are wholly satisfying, opener “All I Do is Lie” has tremendously engaging highs and lows. It’s a perfect introduction to Chura for those just finding out about her, especially as it compares to her debut, MESSES, which was a less intense affair that had smoother vocal melodies but lacked the kind of ragged, explosive quality producer Will Toledo helps accentuate on MIDNIGHT. “All I Do is Lie” especially sees Chura exploiting the unhinged warble of her vocals in Karen O-esque fashion, even in the slacker talk-along build-up to the chorus—a moment that could easily be played with more polish. Her voice carries these songs, doing far more of the heavy lifting than in her previous work and ranging from beautiful to intense often in microseconds, channeling artists like Kathleen Hanna, Tanya Donelly from Throwing Muses, and especially the aforementioned O (“3D Girl,” especially, is the best Yeah Yeah Yeahs song you’ve heard in years).
That grungy, empty bar heartbreaker sound is something Chura masterfully tees up across the board on MIDNIGHT, and it’s at its most straightforward when it’s boiled down to something simple and musically one-dimensional as it is on the necessary breaking interludes, “Trumbull” and “Love Song.” Toledo’s fingerprints are all over MIDNIGHT, and the skills he’s honed the past several years with Car Seat Headrest culminate in an album that frequently exudes a specific brand of burning, building chaos. Toledo, a proven master of constructing satisfying, violent musical builds, sets Chura loose in songs that bombastically build from zero to sixty with gleeful fuck-all energy, be it the fever dreaming aggression displayed on the stampeding “Method Man” or the bubbling emotional rise that transpires through “Sincerely Yours.” Even more conventionally straightforward tracks, like the mean, mugging drive of single “They’ll Never,” earns its echo-y guitar solos before the refrain.
Amidst all the self-created musical mayhem, Chura and Toledo feel totally in control of everything happening. This isn’t an album creating chaos for chaos’ sake, and with sweaty palms it wants to go to the edge of a cliff just to contemplate jumping. The two’s duet “Sweet Sweet Midnight” nails the dancing-on-the-edge-of-a-knife manufactured spontaneity of MIDNIGHT, especially since the song builds so consistently across the five minutes. The longer tracks, both “Sweet Sweet Midnight” and “Degrees,” are almost painfully calculated (you can hear the songwriting and production coming together as you listen), but nonetheless deliver appropriate emotional highs and lows.
With MIDNIGHT, Chura has made one of 2019’s most gripping, grungy, and untamed releases by emboldening a give-no-fucks, explosive indie rock sound that tends to get buried these days behind lo-fi bedroom pop crooners and polished singer-songwriter affairs—none of those artists, and you know who they are, would ever have the balls to end on a cover of a Billy Idol song. It’s refreshing to hear someone that can deliver haywire, high wire rock, even if it sounds like it took a few tries to get there. MIDNIGHT is scrappy and specific, occupying the same indie rock sphere that Car Seat Headrest have undoubtedly pushed to the forefront over the last few years, and Stef Chura is a most welcomed addition to that world.