Underlined Passages – Neon Inoculation – Album Review
Inoculation just has the one N up at the front eh? Well…ya learn somethin’ new every day now don’t ya.
Having loosely been a part of a two-piece band myself since back in the early 2000s, I’ve always felt a natural kinship with the music of Underlined Passages, which is created by two dudes outta Baltimore, Michael Nestor (Vocals, Guitars, Keys, Bass) and Jamaal Turner (Drums, Percussion). While there are a whole bunch of arguments to be made on behalf of what a full band can do & I’ve heard them all – I’ve always found that the more players ya got, the more demands need to be met, and that a much smaller circle can lead to quicker breakthroughs achieved through tighter communication. Let’s be real here – if you’re in a two-piece band, it’s safe to say that those two musicians are completely and totally on the same page, otherwise they’d ditch the hassle of another human entity & just rock solo, you follow me?
As “Feb. 1992” started to flow with its dreamy sound & thick bass vibes in the mix, I gotta admit, they had me gettin’ a bit nostalgic for the days of old, back when I still used to rock and tracks like this would randomly pop into my inbox. These two dudes prove that two dudes are all they need in their band – they’ve done it in the past, and they do it again here now as they open with a brilliantly colorful & sweet swirl of sound doled out with spectacularly delicate control on “Feb. 1992” as Neon Inoculation begins. To be truthful, this is one of those tunes that I listened to and really wanted to resist even moving forward, know what I mean? I could spend a significant amount of time lost in the atmospheric haze and melodic glow that Michael & Jamaal create on this first cut…and by significant amount of time, I mean like, days and weeks y’all. While I always maintain there’s a bit of inherent risk that comes along with starting any record out on the mellower-side of sound, if I’m bein’ completely honest with ya, these two guys could put on a clinic on how to go about doing it RIGHT. There’s not a single ounce of me that can resist “Feb. 1992” and I’m much less inclined to even try…this song slides straight through your speakers and into your soul like that’s the place where it has always belonged, and proudly calls home.
Again, what I really like about two-piece bands like Underlined Passages is that you can really hear how both experimentation and expertise play a role in what they create. A lot of this band is clearly willing to go with the flow & where the music takes them, and there’s an equal dose of professionalism shared between them that ensures their experimentation is worth the effort – and as a result of their dedicated attention to the finest details, everything ends up sounding as natural as can possibly be inside the digital realm of sound. For real – check out “The New Sincerity” and you’ll know exactly what I mean – obviously there IS a ton of work that has to be put into making a song like this sound as stellar as it does, but I’ll be damned if Underlined Passages don’t make it seem like it’s completely effortless to them in all the right ways. Like…for example…when you hear the music, you feel that instant connection to the spacious rhythm & groove they start building…and when the vocals come into play, it’s like you knew they were going to fit exactly where they do. It’s not that it’s typical, it’s that the songwriting is 100% on-point and made by artists that have a remarkable understanding of what makes music authentically connect to us as listeners. “The New Sincerity” brings the energy up from where “Feb. 1992” started the record, and at its peak intensity with the vocals ringing out loud & proud, this cut ends up with a colorful & triumphant sound that feels like the victory it genuinely IS. Underlined Passages ain’t messin’ around with this new record, and while they might be trying all kinds of new things in terms of how Neon Inoculation was made – I’d be willing to bet that any set of two functioning ears out there having a quality listen to this album would readily confirm that whatever they’ve been doing, should continue. If the results are gonna be like what we experience in the first two cuts, something is very clearly working.
I will readily tell ya that “Couples Therapy” is a solid tune filled with single-worthy sound – in fact, I’m sure I would have done that back in August of last year when I reviewed this song in advance of the official release of Neon Inoculation. Wanna find out if I did? I’ll admit, I’m kind of curious myself, but not really…I know myself pretty well…chances are, I loved it as much then as I do now – the only way to solve the mystery is by clicking here to find out if the past predicted the future! Oh the suspense and shameless self-promotion! I’m always embarrassed of myself, don’t worry. Anyhow. “Couples Therapy” is definitely a reliable cut worth adding to the lineup, and was certainly welcome to my ears as it found its way through my speakers surrounding me once again. The ONLY thing I can say, having had previous experience with this particular cut – is that usually I’m a bit more into the idea of absorbing a song like this all over again, even with all the new stuff goin’ on. It was almost the opposite when it came to this new record by Underlined Passages…I’m literally so freakin’ EXCITED about the fact that there is NEW music from this band that I ALMOST had to skip past “Couples Therapy” simply because I already knew it. I never did, because I’m a gentleman…but you get what I’m saying – I’ve got nothing but love & respect for the quality & execution on a cut like this, but I am definitely here for the stuff I haven’t heard yet by Underlined Passages this time around! If you haven’t heard this track yet yourself, have no fear – you’re gonna love it – they serve up a vivid dose of evocative sound that’s truly special to experience…not like venting so much…it’s more of a release of energy into the universe as it rains down.
Believe in these guys, and I’m tellin’ ya folks…they’ll continue to thrive and surge out there within this music scene we share. If you somehow still NEED a further reason to wanna support Underlined Passages after the first three songs on Neon Inoculation, I can forgive ya for being dropped on your head as a child…that wasn’t your fault, and clearly it’s made you into a confused adult. If you need another reason past “Drone” though, I am officially afraid that you would have to be considered to be beyond help…because this is audible perfection. It’s like…if you could somehow cross everything that’s amazing about Band Of Horses with Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism record, you would end up with something that sounds exactly like “Drone” – and if that doesn’t sell you on it, again, I can’t help ya. It SHOULD…it should imply that you’re about to listen to a song with substantial WEIGHT to it, irresistible melodic charm, and a beautiful melancholy you’ll want to practically bathe yourself in. On my very first listen to “Drone,” my initial reaction sprung into my head instantly…the thought I love the most actually, whenever I’m listening to something truly incredible – I thought to myself, “how on earth are they going to top THIS?” That’s how good “Drone” is y’all…I ain’t lyin’ to ya when I say I don’t really even need another song in 2022 after hearing this one. I’ll hear plenty anyway…that’s a guarantee doing what I do – all I’m saying is I don’t NEED to…not after this…”Drone” is an absolute masterpiece by every definition.
I’m hoping Baltimore appreciates Underlined Passages…cause if they don’t I’m mighty inclined to adopt both Jamaal and Michael and bring’em north of the border over here into Canada. Listening to a track like “Bifurcation” has a lot in common with records like you’d find from the Doughboys towards the end of their run like Turn Me On, or from Treble Charger before they really broke through on NC-17. They’re always going to remind me most of Death Cab overall, don’t get me wrong…I can’t claim any Canadian influences on Underlined Passages for any kind of conclusive fact, I’m just saying we’d all love’em here. So watch your behinds USA friends…support Underlined Passages or we’re annexing them to Canada! “Bifurcation” has real melodic grit to it y’all…like…we’re talking MEATY sound for what appears like such a delicate tune to a degree…each note & tone they play genuinely counts…they play their music with undeniable passion, and a track like this really exemplifies that when you listen to it up close. Listen to the way Jamaal hits those skins! Technique, tone, the right choices…everything is right where you wanna find it; the man is shakin’ the walls back there from the kit as “Bifurcation” builds with the guitars surrounding him spiraling into an entire wall of sound. Another sonic triumph as far as my ears are concerned…by the time “Bifurcation” was finished, I was getting the feeling that this band can do no wrong…I’m tellin’ ya, Underlined Passages are absolutely remarkable – songs like this are proof, 100%.
And then FINALLY…it happened! “Lng Trm Xpsure” is alright, it ain’t gonna win them the awards though. The gall of this critic, am I right? Look…I’m gonna be completely real with ya – this isn’t on ME, it’s on THEM. Is it MY fault that they wrote five of the most amazing songs you’ll hear in 2022 and stacked’em all in front of “Lng Trm Xpsure?” I’m pretty sure it wasn’t ME that did that. And was it ME that wrote such amazing material that continually kept putting the pressure on every subsequent song to live up to some seriously superhuman standards? Heck no – that wasn’t ME either! Underlined Passages are truly only competing with themselves at this point…that’s what I’m getting at, all kidding aside. On any other record out there, you’d find a track like “Lng Trm Xpsure” would probably have a good crack at being an A-side – just so happens that Underlined Passages wrote the living daylights outta the first five tracks we hear on Neon Inoculation and this particular cut pales a bit by comparison to the rest of the set so far. I ain’t saying it’s a bad tune – it’s anything but! To be as crystal clear as I can be, it’s a solid & reliable cut – it just doesn’t quite reach the same level of irresistible magic that the five cuts beforehand created, that’s it, that’s all…but it’s still mighty close, and still a verifiably worthy inclusion onto Neon Inoculation.
“Lng Ago, Fr Away” – are these guys having some kind of crazy keyboard malfunction? What gives? I felt like this track picked everything right back up and put Underlined Passages straight back into the melancholy melodies where they belong, and absolutely thrive within. Hearing the end of that first line in the chorus bend with the perfect direction for the hook…again, I maintain, they’ve got such an exceptional grip on what makes melody connect, and they put that skill to work big-time on “Lng Ago, Fr Away.” Tracks like this actually end up reminding me a lot of the way an album like Dulcinea from Toad The Wet Sprocket took a band typically known for their quieter & friendlier tunes, and laced in a savage dose of unfiltered, raw, and REAL Rock…”Lng Ago, Fr Away” has that similarly serious edge to its beauty. At a robust 4:10, it’s the longest track you’ll find on Neon Inoculation, and a massive triumph in terms of using every single second to their advantage…”Lng Ago, Fr Away” has melodic qualities to it that are as addictive as they come…the vocal hooks of this track are another stunning achievement & highlight for what Michael brings to the microphone. For a slower & more spacious jam, they sure prove they know how to throw the switch and transition into a truly powerful sound when they wanna get more intense, and they’re genuinely able to accomplish that through the music, vocals, and lyricism within their songs. Sometimes one tiny piece of a song can make it monumentally memorable – while I don’t know if I’d quite go as far as to say the entire cut would be as strong as those first five are…it’s reallllll close here, and that’s largely due to that brilliantly clever bend in the melody Michael creates in the chorus hooks.
I think it’s probably fair to say that a song like “I Was Wrong” trades in a bit of the accessibility you’d find in the opening half of the record for a bit more of an artistic and atmospherically-inclined vibe. It’s a cut that’d I’d absolutely tell ya adds strength to the whole lineup, even if it might not have that one defining moment that makes it stand out like “Lng Ago, Fr Away” did just prior. “I Was Wrong” works with more of a mesmerizing & hypnotic approach for the most part, and chorus wise, there’s no doubt that they do raise the stakes with a vibrantly bold moment from the microphone…even if it’s just slightly. What I like is that they continue to envelop themselves within “I Was Wrong” as it plays on, and before ya know it, you’re locked right into that wall of sound effect again that they achieve at peak intensity…if that sounds like some kind of detriment, I assure ya it ain’t – it’s actually quite something to behold is what it IS y’all. A wall of sound doesn’t need to be such a mish-mash of noise that you can’t make anything out – heck, if you’re doin’ it right, it’s pretty much the exact opposite if you ask me…Underlined Passages seem to get what I’m talkin’ about…they load up on sound in layers until they’ve got the perfect amount of what you wanna hear spillin’ outta the lefts & rights, and they execute their plans with the very best of’em. “I Was Wrong” really ends up playing like a seriously balanced moment in time…there are no weak points; it might not quite amp you up as much as many of the other tracks do, or deliver that melodic sweet spot in the way the mellower side of their sound does…but there’s something tangibly special about the way this track takes hold of you that can’t be denied either. The main hook of the chorus is massively effective…I suspect it’s the whole fluidity of “I Was Wrong” that leads it to such stellar results in the end.
“Quaalz” will mess with your mind a bit as you listen, which I’d wager a guess is entirely intentional, and makes you wonder if “Quaalz” is short for Quaaludes, you followin’ me? I’ve spun this record a whole bunch dear readers, dear friends…and I still couldn’t tell you for a definitive FACT that “Quaalz” is about 15% quieter than any other song on the album, I just know that it’s true. They slide so far into the haze and comfort of this mellow melody that it’s like you’re listening to a song covered in pillows. Love the way Jamaal uses the percussion to enhance this whole vibe…honestly, I love the whole freakin’ thing, even though I swear they’re messing with my brainwaves here. It IS quieter than the rest of the set, isn’t it? I’m sure that it is. Positive. Very nearly sure. I am not uncertain. What I can tell ya for sure is this…I think “Quaalz” is arguably one of the most niche songs in the lineup of Neon Inoculation, and what might make it even MORE amazing is the fact that it’s likely going to prove to be just as addictive as the rest, even with the band stuffed so far down the rabbit hole you’ll start to wonder if they’ll ever return! Much like that same effect the opening track “Feb. 1992” had on me, there was just something so intangibly irresistible about the entire sound of “Quaalz” – I could stay lost happily in this track for days on end & you’d never find me complaining. Does that make it for everyone? Heck no…but what a fantastic world that would be if everyone felt the way I did about music lemme tell ya. That’s all I mean by saying it’s more niche…chances are “Quaalz” will appeal to a smaller selection of the audience out there listening…but for those of you out there that get it like I get it, you’ll be mercilessly addicted to it. Oddly enough, by the time I ended up writing this review, there’s a large part of me that would be willing to say that “Quaalz” might have found its way up into my top two or three tracks on this album.
So…here’s what’s real. When I hear a song like “Drone,” I know exactly what I’m listening to – it’s the kind of moment so monumental, so vivid, and so all-around incredible that I knew full-well after hearing it the first time, it’d be damn near impossible for Underlined Passages to outdo themselves from there. And I was right about that – but don’t let that imply they haven’t held their own every moment in the songs surrounding it, right up to & including the conclusive ending they put into Neon Inoculation through “Circles-Sand” to finish it off. Honestly, it’s extremely commendable that they came anywhere close to “Drone” for me in the rest of this set, and each song on this record was merely inches away from that incredible highlight…Underlined Passages put consistency on display throughout this entire lineup of beautifully bulletproof material. “Circles-Sand” was a mesmerizing ending to what’s been a genuinely compelling record from start to finish…there ain’t one bad song on Neon Inoculation, or a moment I’d ever want to miss when I put it on…right now, I think it’s absolutely one of the best of 2022.
Find out more about Underlined Passages from their official website: http://www.underlineslove.com
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