Album Review: Babehoven - Sunk
And I have found this is the second time, in recent weeks, that I have gotten 500 or 600 words into an album review, and then become extremely dissatisfied with what I put on the page—and then I start over.
And I think this dissatisfaction is coming from a few different places, one of which is, of course, my own frustration, and the times when I am unable to remain focused. I should know that if I am gazing at the word processor document open on my laptop, with the intent of writing, but my focus is being, even partially, pulled in another direction, I should just close the computer and set it aside, rather than aimlessly or half-heartedly attempting to put words on a page.
But, I find that, even when I am distracted, or growing frustrated by my inability to concentrate, I continue to aimlessly and half-heartedly put words on a page—words that, either later on that day, or the next day, I will inevitably erase, or heavily edit.
We are now four months into 2022, and of the music writing I have completed, six of the eight pieces have been criticisms on recently released albums—the other two being long reflections on important records celebrating milestone anniversaries that, while the word count grows, become extremely personal essays as well.
And I think because I have been operating in these two different areas of writing about music—analyzing an album critically as well as analyzing an album reflectively, part of my dissatisfaction comes from when attempting to blend both of those doesn’t work exactly as I’d like it to. And I can write, read, re-write, and edit all I want before the dissatisfaction is unavoidable, and I start over.
I’m pretty sure the first time I saw the word “fugazi” was on a t-shirt.
This would have been in the mid-1990s, when a member of the cast of MTV’s chaotic hidden camera, elaborate prank show “Buzzkill,” was wearing the now-iconic “This Is Not A Fugazi T-Shirt.”
The design, and the word, were enough so that it stuck in my pre-teenage brain. And, when I was much, much older, with a little bit of searching on the internet, I learned the shirt was, originally, a bootleg design—the band, Fugazi, famously had no official merchandise. However, Fugazi co-founder Ian MacKaye found the shirt so clever, he signed off on officially licensing the shirt, as long as the money the creator made from it went directly to a charitable organization.
The second time I saw the word “fugazi” was when I was a senior in high school—and based on the word, or the name, that stuck with me for five or six years at that point, I more or less blindly bought a few Fugazi CDs from a now long-shuttered record store in a mall in Rockford, Illinois, with the Christmas cash that was burning a hole through my wallet, which then, was attached to a belt loop on my baggy jeans with a cumbersome chain.
At the tail end of the year 2000, and early 2001, Fugazi were just on the cusp of entering their now two-decade hiatus, and upon adding a few other Fugazi albums to my collection, purchased at the small record store in my hometown, I connected with some of the tunes instantly—“Waiting Room” is perhaps one of their most well known, and also most accessible to a casual listen, or at the very least, a listen by the ears of a 17-year-old.
Despite all my efforts, though, I can retrospectively say they were a band that, at the time, I was simply not “ready”1 for.
There were some flirtations with Fugazi when I worked in radio in my late 20s—I would occasionally play the song “Strangelight,” from their final album, The Argument, because there were times in the song I felt like Guy Picciotto’s vocals sounded somewhat similar2 to the spidery voice of Elliott smith.
But it would be until my mid to late 30s, which is where I am now, when Fugazi, as a band would finally click with me, or that I would believe myself to be “ready” for them.
How do you hear about new music? New songs, or new bands.
There is only so much time in a day—your day, or mine, to dedicate to clicking every blurb on music news websites to read about, or hear a preview, of a name you don’t recognize, or a new song from an artist you have an interest, even a passing one in.
There is only so much time in a day—your day, or mine, to dedicate to researching every artist that gets mentioned in a quoted tweet, a retweet, or an Instagram story from an artist, or label, you follow.
There is only so much time in a day to pay attention to what album cover thumbnails appear in the “new for you” section of your Spotify homepage.
It has only been out for around a month, but I am already uncertain how I exactly heard about the group Babehoven, or what even prompted me to follow whatever curiosity I might have felt. Did I see something on Twitter? Was it mentioned on Instagram? Was it before or after the duo’s most recent effort, Sunk, had been reviewed on Pitchfork?
Had I briefly gotten them confused with the slinky, R&B laced group Babeheaven?
Originally, I thought that the band name, Babehoven, was a little cutesy—perhaps too cutesy for me to give them consideration. The kind of winking band name similar to, like, Adult Mom, though not steeped in such irony. And I will admit that the punchline within the name “Babehoven” took a moment to register.
But I was interested. Or curious enough. And before I hit play on Sunk’s opening track, “Fugazi,” I had no idea what I was in for—literally no clue what a group named Babehoven would sound like.
I made it roughly two minutes into the song’s four and a half, and I was in absolute awe of what I was hearing.
I hesitate to Babehoven is an outfit working in a shroud, albeit a slight one, of mystery, but if you search for their name online, it takes a little while until you come up with anything3 providing information on their background. And as I had somewhat suspected already from reading the credits provided to the group’s earliest releases, all found on the Babehoven Bandcamp page, the project originally started as a solo outlet for singer and songwriter Maya Bon—she is solely credited on the first two Babehoven EPs, 2018’s Sleep, released one year after she established the moniker, and its follow up, Solemnis.
“Sound artist” Ryan Alpert is credited, for the first time, as contributing to the group’s 2020 release, Demonstrating Visible Difference of Height—he also played a large role in the sound of Babehoven’s extremely experimental and high concept EP, Yellow Has A Pretty Good Reputation, which was released the following year, as was Nastavi, Calliope.
You could make the argument, and you would be correct, in saying Babhoven is, for a relatively new, or young, group, prolific w/r/t their release schedule; you could add to that, and again, you would be correct, in describing the duo’s sound as not “restless,” but one of continual growth and discovery. In less than five years, and through the direct collaboration with another person, Bon has been able to continue pushing the sound of Babehoven forward with each EP issued. Alpert and Bon do not reinvent themselves or their sound on each release, but they continue to distill, or focus, on different elements that were certainly present in the past. The claustrophobic, lo-fi sound of Nastavi, Calliope is not missing completely from Sunk, but the scope of this new EP (and perhaps it has to do with it being the duo’s first release through a label) is much more expansive—lush, and more organic sounding in comparison.
There is both an urgency, and a dissonance, found within Sunk’s second track, “Stapling,” and the further you get into the collection of six songs, the hazier and more mesmerizing things become.
“Stapling” moves a little faster or at least has a little more bounce in the rhythm when contrasted against the EP’s opening track—not falling into a groove quite yet, but the song’s bass line is thick, and reverberates underneath the percussion and strummed acoustic guitar, accompanied by the additional instrumentation of a whimsical sounding keyboard, and a distorted, crunchy guitar riff that cuts through upon its arrival.
Sunk, perhaps, reaches its haziest or dreamiest when it hits the halfway point, with “Get Better,” where a tangible groove, or slinky sensation converges with cavernous, shoegaze-inspired guitar work, and a swaying, ethereal sensation. And near Sunk’s conclusion, the duo pushes the sound from hazy and dreamy into near bombastic territory on “Creature.” None of the songs on this collection are “inaccessible,” but “Creature” is perhaps the most accessible to a casual listen, or one that seems like it would be poised as a single for college and public radio stations because of the way Alpert and Bon work things up to a musical, bombastic peak, and like other songs on the EP, it isn’t solely rooted in a sense of dissonance or unease, or a tension that is never truly released.
Sunk concludes with the collection’s longest and most surprising piece—sprawling itself out over seven-minute, “Twenty Dried Chillies” is precariously balanced atop a frenetic, absolutely hypnotic progression of plucked acoustic guitar strings—dizzying in just how quickly it all begins to swirl and never relents. It shouldn't be surprising that the sustainability of the song comes from the lyricism, and the story within, but it is impressive that the duo can pace a song like this—double the length of the other tunes on the EP, it never feels that long, or like it is dragging, and is completely mesmerizing the entire time.
There is, of course, the sense of humor one has to have to appreciate or understand the band’s name, and I do not want to imply that is where the laughter stops. Babehoven are not a humorless band, but Bon’s sense of humor is used sparingly in her lyrics—often dark, often extremely subtle and dry. Her sense of humor is the most noticeable, or at least used most directly, on “Twenty Dried Chillies.”
Bon isn’t bleak, per se, in her lyricism, but through a fragmented, poetic ambiguity, create evocative scenarios that play out against the music. “I have opened all of myself to you,” she confesses on “Stapling.” “And you keep a door locked on me.” On previous Babehoven releases, like Nastavi, Calliope, Bon was notably working through grief, but that is much less prevalent in her writing on Sunk; here, she is often writing from a tumultuous place full of doubt and self-deprecation. “There’s always going to be someone who’s better than me,” she sings on “Get Better.” “I know I’m trying to be better.”
The evocative nature of her phrase turns, the cutting self assessments, and extremely personal reflections converge with a sense of macabre humor as the EP comes to an end. “I recall when you were a teenager, I wanted to be just like you,” Bon sings on “Twenty Dried Chillies,” followed shortly by a stark realization. “Now you’re turning 27, and I don’t know you anymore. I’m at a loss at what happens in this world. It is a cruel sensation—remembering I am human, and I’m prone to accidents of the heart.”
“I regret sending you that email where I said I wanted to kill you,” Bon continues, in what is one of the more surprising, and also darkest lines on Sunk. “When what I mean is that I long to feel you—you are still someone that I know dearly well, like I used to.”
And in talking about that lyric, specifically, it would behoove me to mention the way Bon controls and uses her voice throughout Sunk. On “Twenty Dried Chillies,” it is used perhaps the most gracefully, as she bends and shifts it to allow her vocals to gently coast and skitter just along the surface of the song’s instrumentation, occasionally letting it dip down below before ascending once again. The way she holds certain notes, and stretches out some of the lyrics, though, is an absolute marvel, allowing the “yous” in “I long to feel you” and “you are still someone” to breathlessly and beautifully overlap.
Earlier in the EP, like on “Get Better,” her voice is full of pleading, and perhaps the strongest and clearest it is when compared to the other five tunes in this collection—but the technique, or device, I took most notice of while listening, was very deliberate nature and the patience she has when singing, really allowing her voice to tumble or spill out where it needs to within a song, scattering itself across the top of the instrumentation, which you can really hear her using in a song like “Stapling.”
For the last week, I have had an internet tab open from a linguistics website, w/r/t the word “fugazi.” I had a feeling I knew what it might have meant prior to looking it up, and this small amount of research more or less confirmed it.
“Fugazi” can be used, or has been used, two different ways.
Much like “Snafu”—situation normal, all fucked up, or “Fubar”—fucked up beyond all recognition, one of definitions or histories of “fugazi” is rooted in military slang. Originating, apparently, during the Vietnam War, the letters of the word stand for “fucked up, got ambushed, zipped in.” Though, the linguistics website I referenced notes it also was commonly used around this time to simply describe walking into a bad situation.
The other, and perhaps original definition of “fugazi” is believed to be Italian—derived from the word “fugace,” which means fleeting. In Italian culture, and especially within the mafia, it was used to describe something that was fake. Within that context, it has been spelled differently (fugazy) and pronounced with a longer emphasis on the “a.”
The title of the Babehoven song, “Fugazi”—the song that opens Sunk, is a reference to the band, and I hesitate to say that the song here, sequenced as the first thing you hear on the EP, is so good and so otherworldly that it sets the bar entirely too high for the five songs that follow it, because that isn’t really the case. Hyperbole aside, “Fugazi” is the kind of song that, whether you are hearing it for the first time, or if you are listening again, as I have listened countless times since I made the decision to write about Babehoven—it is the kind of song that knocks the wind out of you.
The kind of song I can say is one of the finest, most captivating of the year.
In the past, when my analysis of albums were a little more casually written, or at least had a little better of a sense of humor about them, and were not as long or complicated, there were times when I would make a reference to a scene from an episode of the television show “Twin Peaks,” where the character of Audrey Horne begins awkwardly, dreamily swaying to the music playing off the jukebox at the Double R Diner. I would often reference this image, because it is so iconic yes, but in its iconography within the zeitgeist, it conveys the feeling that I wanted to articulate about whatever song, or artist, or album, I was writing about.
There is a swooning haze that, from the first strum of the acoustic guitar on “Fugazi,” right through until the ending, is unrelenting—the kind of feeling that can, in fact, be conveyed by listening to the song, while watching a loop of actress Sherilyn Fenn, in a dark red sweater and plaid skirt, flailing in slow motion.
The genre identifier “slow core” appears in the subheading of the Pitchfork review of Sunk, and within the second paragraph, a comparison to Mazzy Star’s singer Hope Sandoval is made. Babehoven are inherently not a “slow core” band, but there is a much slower, deliberate restraint in a lot of the tunes found within Sunk—if anything, they could possibly find their way into the Venn diagram where hushed, spectral, oddball folk and idiosyncratic, at times tightly wound “indie rock” converge. On Sunk, and especially on “Fugazi,” Bon and Alpert play the slowness, and the huge silences that form in between the gentle brushes of the cymbal and snare drum, like an instrument. There is such emotional heft to those spaces, it is almost too easy to get lost in those, rather than focusing on the rest of the song’s arranging, or Bon’s vivid lyricism, slowly drizzling down over the top of the music like a codeine drip.
And I get the comparison, or at least the using Mazzy Star and Hope Sandoval as a point of reference—I stop short of saying that is lazy, however well meant it was, on the part of writer Hannah Seidlitz to go there, and go there so early in her take on Sunk. But a band like Babehoven, an EP like Sunk, and especially a song like “Fugazi,” are all strong enough and impressive enough to stand on their own without name dropping comparisons.
“Fugazi” is all about a smolder—that sense of tension, with no sign of release. It isn’t taught, though, but Bon and Alpert never let the song get away from them, even when they work to build it up to a devastatingly gorgeous, somber peak, when it arrives at what serves as its town line refrain: “An idea will leave me breathless,” Bon sings in a sleepy, bittersweet mumble, before nearly repeating the line, “An idea—you leave me breathless,” pushing her range higher, and with an endless well of emotion, letting it soar above the downcast acoustic guitar chord strumming and steady, slow motion percussion.
Lyrically, “Fugazi” captures both a moment, or a fragment in time, but also the things surrounding it, and it does so with both a directness, or at least a lack of ambiguity, and through depictions hazy enough that they can be barely made out—like Bon is recalling a dream that she is on the cusp of almost forgetting the details of.
“Face is a mess—I’m wondering how what happens when we’re young doesn’t seem to work out,” she sings, slowly and quietly, as the song’s second verse, before the song moves into its sweeping refrain.
Then, later on, “There is something I said that I regret. But he thought that he showed me Fugazi. I don’t know how to explain how that feels. It doesn’t make sense why it hurt me.”
Sunk, like its opening track, captures a moment, or a fragment in time, for Bon and Alpert. It both is, and is not, a culmination of the things they have been working toward with the project—shedding the experimental impulses from their earliest collaborations, and much more focused and tighter sounding in comparison to last year’s Nastavi, Calliope, it is a short, beautiful statement that, even after you have listened one time, casts its haze over you, and lingers in your thoughts well after the music has stopped.
1- I think the idea of being “ready” for a band, or an album, is something that I have probably written about, possibly at length, in the past. My experience with music like this is that when you do return to it, or find your way into it, there’s still something about it that keeps you at an arm’s length.
2- Maybe this is a stretch. I don’t know. If you listen to “Strangelight,” though, now, with this in mind, perhaps you will hear it too.
3- One result that I found extremely helpful was a review from For The Rabbits.