Photos by Collin Wilson.
“I walked 14 blocks while thinking—do the means always justify the ends?” asks singer/bassist Gavan Holden at the end of “Insert: Emoji,” the second single from Basement Life’s debut full-length, “Love is Not Real.” In the case of “Love is Not Real,” the answer to that question resounds in the affirmative.
Basement Life finished tracking “Love is Not Real” with Aslan Freeman of Freeman Productions Studio in June of 2016 before “taking a little break to do life things” and promising to “be back at it soon” while Jesse Cannon (Man Overboard, Daddy Issues, Dillinger Escape Plan) mastered the record. Perhaps as a result of the aforementioned “life things,” the band fell silent until December of the same year when it announced “Samantha Sweatshirt,” the record’s first single and opening track.
In many ways, “Samantha Sweatshirt” serves as a fitting and demonstrative introduction to “Love is Not Real.” The song prominently features Holden’s unflinching vocal roar and drummer Brennan O’Brien’s adeptly syncopated and never redundant approach to keeping time. Guitarist Eric Mann alternates between distorted chunks of rhythm and tastefully-effected lead lines, a contrast employed to great effect in other songs like “Machine Works, Machine Works” and “Insert: Emoji.”
Holden’s bellowed lyrics range from the figuratively abstract (“My heart only burns on the surface” or “I keep my spine interrupted” in “Attentioneater”) to the hyper-concrete (explaining precisely “why I called tonight” in “Samantha Sweater”). The high-energy chorus melodies in “Fly By Night” and “Beaufort, NC/Beaufort, SC” are streamlined and ready for immediate consumption, while the brooding and subdued whispers of the verse passages in “For Whatever” provide stark foils to Holden’s preferred delivery.
Basement Life actively advertises the fact that the band is comprised of former members of Kudzu Wish, Funny Like A Funeral, Pilots and Social Life. Holden, O’Brien and Mann’s collective musical experience surely informs Basement Life’s mature and focused sound, as “Love is Not Real” is remarkably cohesive for any band’s debut full-length. Throughout the record, Holden, O’Brien and Mann showcase their instrumental proficiencies without overstepping the sum total of the band’s sound. Guitar leads never wander into the realm of “guitar solos” and drum fills never detract from the feel and pulse of the respective song.
“Love is Not Real” is more of an exercise in restraint and collaborative musicality than it is one of showmanship, which only flatters the presentation of the songs.
During “Stratosphere,” Holden’s already strained voice seems to teeter on the brink of tearing completely before, in the final 30 seconds of the song, he alters his delivery to deliver the song’s final stanza. Holden summons what little remains of his vocal chords to murmur: “It’s really sad that we just got started/ But you act like this is what you wanted” four times before the final reverb-soaked guitar tone rings out.
Momentarily setting aside the composition of the songs and the instrumental performances of the band members, Freeman and Cannon deserve significant credit for their respective contributions to the refined final product. O’Brien’s drum set resonates bright and clean without sounding overproduced. Holden’s unadulterated voice is captivating on its own, but takes on new character when layered with harmonies or lightly edited on songs like “For Whatever” and “Swan.” Holden’s slightly overdriven bass sits just right in the mix, holding the songs together when Mann breaks away to play leads, without leaving any kind of sonic or musical emptiness behind.
“You need to think about your life/ You think too slow,” Holden seems to lecture himself during the chorus of “Beaufort, NC/Beaufort, SC.” For the sake of listeners everywhere, Basement Life is more than welcome to take their time with the follow-up to “Love is Not Real,” if the wait ensures an equally deliberate and carefully-crafted result.