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“I don’t want to be your fucking dog,” sings Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison on “Your Dog,” a highlight from her new album Clean. Over knotty, distorted guitars and churning bass, Allison is equal turns confrontational and vulnerable. “I want a love that lets me breathe/I’ve been choking on your leash.” It’s a mission statement, a reclamation of power, a rewriting of all indie rock’s rules.
Soccer Mommy is the project of twenty-year-old Sophie Allison, a Nashville native. She cut her teeth in her local DIY scene, going to shows and hanging out with other musicians, though she kept her own songwriting secret. “I’ve played music since I was six,” says Allison, “and I always wrote songs just for myself. I did it for fun, posting songs on Tumblr, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud. I didn’t think anyone would notice.”
All that changed the summer before Allison left for college. She bought a Tascam digital recorder and began to experiment with production, pushing the quality and craft of her songs to new heights. A buzz began to grow around her Bandcamp recordings, leading to live shows and eventually a record deal, with 2017’s critically acclaimed bedroom-recorded compilation Collection. “I realized that I could do this full-time,” says Allison. “It was either quit school now and do it, or stop growing as an artist. It was now or never.”
So Allison took the plunge. She quit school, moved back home to Nashville, shifting all her focus to music. She toured with Mitski, Jay Som, Slowdive, and others, and was featured in the New York Times article “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women.” The bedroom project of Sophie Allison is now a full-time band with a new studio-album debut, Clean. Produced by Gabe Wax (War On Drugs, Deerhunter, Beirut) and mixed by Ali Chant (Perfume Genius, PJ Harvey), Clean is Allison’s journey out of the bedroom and into the studio.
“I wanted it to be a lot more cohesive than the rest of the stuff that came before,” says Allison, on her decision to record in a studio. “I’d never made a full album before, just EPs and random tracks thrown together. I wanted to make something that was a full piece of my life, that addressed similar themes and held together as a whole.”
The higher production values play to Allison’s strengths, highlighting the maturity and growth of her songwriting. The music gains clarity and power, losing none of the trademark intimacy of her Bandcamp work, something Allison credits to days spent recording in Wax’s home studio. “It still felt do-it-yourself,” she says. “It didn’t feel like making a pop album. It was like being in a nicer bedroom, with better quality stuff. It was a natural progression. I’d always wanted my music to sound this way, I just didn’t have the means before.”
“Still Clean” is a stunner of an opening track, with the signature warmth of Allison’s voice coupled with one of her best hooks. It’s mostly Allison alone with her electric guitar, playing chords and singing about an ephemeral, passing love. The song is full of heartache and defiance, equal measures vulnerability and strength, and it’s Allison at her best. It’s also a bridge of sorts, with synth flourishes rising in a crescendo behind her, ushering the listener into Soccer Mommy’s new, high-definition world.
Allison’s growth as a lyricist is most evident on “Cool”, a sharply observed character study describing an aloof stoner girl, so cool and untouchable, and the agony she inflicts on her boyfriend. “She’ll break your heart and steal your joy/like a criminal,” sings Allison, full of venom and bitterness. But what starts as a lyrical evisceration of the girl in question transforms into awe, even admiration, on the chorus: “I wanna know her like you/I wanna be that cool.” Suddenly the cold-hearted girl becomes the hero, and the song becomes a meditation on identity, on wishing to be someone else for a while.
“Flaw” is the comedown from a song like “Cool.” A melancholy ode to lovesick self-loathing, Allison sings, “I choose to blame it all on you/ ‘Cause I don’t like the truth.” There’s an ecstasy in being sad, and the chorus of “Flaw” nails that feeling perfectly. “Scorpio Rising” crystalizes these themes of identity, jealousy, and the desire to be someone else. What starts as an acoustic ballad, harkening back to the Soccer Mommy bedroom days, quickly transforms into a full-band doomed love song. “’Cause you’re made from the stars/That we watched from your car,” sings Allison, “And I’m just a victim of changing planets/My Scorpio Rising and my parents.”
Clean presents Sophie Allison as a singular artist, wise beyond her years, with an emotional authenticity all her own. “It feels like my first real record,” says Allison. “It’s my first real statement.” It’s an emotional album, heavy on themes of growth, isolation, and change, but balanced by a lightness of touch, and with hooks to spare. Clean is a true step forward, a mature, powerful album from an artist just coming into her power.
Born out of fierce friendship and a mutual affection for melody, Chicago’s Ratboys – anchored by the partnership of Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan – aim to ‘write songs that tell stories and honor the intimacy of memory,’ according to Steiner.
GN, the group’s second full-length album via Topshelf Records, offers a bevy of tales, laments and triumphs, which recount near-tragedies by the train tracks, crippling episodes of loneliness, remembrances of a deceased family pet with freezer burn, and on and on. The songs shift and breathe as worlds all their own, tied together by the group’s self-proclaimed ‘post-country’ sound, which combines moments of distortion and a DIY aesthetic with a devotion to simple songwriting and ties to the Americana sounds of years past.
Drawing influence from the down-to-earth sincerity of late-90s Sheryl Crow and the confessional confidence of Kim Deal and Jenny Lewis, the songs on GN (aka ‘goodnight’) “largely detail experiences of saying goodbye, finding your way home, and then figuring out what the hell to do once you’re back,” says Steiner. The songs chosen to close both sides of the record – the slow-burning ‘Crying About the Planets’ and quizzical ‘Peter the Wild Boy’ – unpack the respective journeys of two real people who were quite literally lost and found. ‘Crying’ tells the survival story of Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson from a first-person perspective, and ‘Peter’ reflects on the life of a feral child in Germany who was eventually adopted by the King of England,’ according to Steiner. ‘Writing as and about these people is the best way I can attempt to empathize with them and really just wrap my mind around these bits of history that otherwise might not get talked about. And it helps me understand my own experiences a little bit better,’ she says.
Certain personal stories – the tour adventures recapped in ‘GM,’ the struggle to learn to show affection as divulged in ‘Molly’ – find Ratboys just as eagerly exploring subject matter that comes from within, and then illustrating the highs and lows with soaring hooks and plaintive ones. Even in the moments that lie somewhere between bliss and misery, a tension persists between Steiner’s sweet vocal delivery and Sagan’s physical, almost-off-the-hinges guitar playing that lends each song a deeper sense of color and movement.
Steiner and Sagan felt the impulse to make music together from the get-go – they first met as university students, quickly put out an EP together, and started performing as an acoustic two-piece in dorm rooms and backyards. During the next few years, the friends traveled separately, eventually reunited, and recorded what would become the first Ratboys record, AOID, which the folks at GoldFlakePaint describe as ‘a gleaming, joyous, raucous display of melodic indie-rock.’
After a year and a half of touring the US and Europe as a plugged-in full band (featuring the additions of drums, bass, and trumpet), the members of Ratboys returned to Chicago and holed up at Atlas Studios for two weeks to record with engineer Mikey Crotty (who had previously worked with the group on the songs ‘Not Again’ and ‘Light Pollution’). ‘This time around, we were lucky enough to feature the talents of friends who play the pedal steel, accordion, cello and violin to give the songs an extra something,’ says Steiner. ‘Dave finally got to show off his ridiculous skills on the pocket piano, and the whole thing felt like one big loving experiment.’
Ratboys keep the good times going in 2018 with a new EP called GL (aka Good Luck). Featuring four songs recorded shortly after the GN sessions, this new companion piece expands upon themes of isolation and memory, while focusing closely on the ups and downs of personal relationships.
‘Each of the songs on GL sounds like its own little world, which is what we set out to do,’ Steiner says. With each song sounding distinct from the rest, the EP offers up four different takes on the sounds of heartache.
On the heels of their newest release, you can find Ratboys on the road, playing songs old and new all over North America and Europe.