There’s a fine tradition of albums named after the recording studios that birthed them, so in the modern era of so much at-home recording, it’s almost a warm and welcoming anachronism when it happens. Harmonizer, the first recording to be completed at Ty Segall’s new Harmonizer Studios, is just that. Coming two years after Segall’s last album under his own name, Harmonizer is a svelte 10 songs and 35 minutes that hums along channeling its namesake. But it’s also a bit of a coming out party for a more synth-driven sound for Segall, and the results are one of the tightest albums of his career.
Part of what makes Harmonizer so engaging are the multiple ways in which the material sounds familiar. “Whisper,” the first full-on song on the album, recalls a strutting version of Battles’ percussive keyboard sound. The title track even sounds like a distant cousin of late era Smashing Pumpkins. Neither comparison quite puts the finger on the pulse of what Segall is doing here, but the latter especially hits closest to the vibe this album seems to inhabit: a world where there’s a lot of experimentation, a lot of hands pulling and tugging at stray ends. And considering the album’s vista of what it means to emerge from isolation, the latter comparison to 90s rock may be more accurate than you think.
This actually brings up one of the biggest reasons Harmonizer is so re-listenable: the album is a really sharp exploration of feeling around the edges of self and finding your way. The press release for the album compared it some of Segall’s earliest work, saying it was “revisiting the lonely days and loathsome nights of the alienated, grown-up-wrong soul,” but in the years of the ongoing pandemic, separated from our usual places and people, it reads differently. Segall hits a lot of repeat lyrical motifs in these songs – ideas of fading away, of being nameless, faceless, of melting, of being erased and of losing identity in others. The character of ‘Waxman’ shows up in a couple of songs, not just his eponymous one, and lines like “he can take my skin and replace the wax so he won’t melt on down” echo the ideas of being fit onto a form, of being molded to a pre-existing shape.
But while so much of the album finds its bearings in losing them, there are a handful of moments of redemption. The first comes in “Harmonizer,” where the song’s opening flange guitar finally unites with the percussion as Segall intones that “it doesn’t matter what we’re saying…inventing notes to form a language, a chord together, now harmonizing.” So much of the album is a slowly revealing paean to what it means to find redemption in our relationships with others. In “Play,” Segall practically begs to just be allowed to go out and play, even if it means parroting the lines we’re taught: “maybe I don’t mean what I say, but if I say it I’m allowed to play.” The lyrics to “Feel Good” explore the openness and accelerated thought that being with a sympathetic partner can bring, which after the album’s darker moments feels like an absolute sunrise. Same with closer “Changing Contours” which sounds almost like a romantic treatise: “now I’m breathing in all I see, new shapes exist in me.”
There are a lot of familiar names alongside Segall throughout the album – mostly Freedom Band members Mikal Cronin, Charles Moothart, Emmett Kelly, and Ben Boye – but co-producer Cooper Crain (producer of work by CAVE, Bitchin Bajas, and Jackie Lynn) and Denée Segall are either new cohorts, as in Crain’s case, or have previously only worked with Segall in other projects. It’s hard to know precisely what Crain brings to the overall album – he’s credited with “general modulation overall” in addition to synths on one song – but whatever environment the two pulled together in the new Harmonizer studios is engaging. Denée Segall, singer in Ty Segall’s side-project The C.I.A. and also his spouse, brings her writing skills to a pair of songs, “Waxman” and “Feel Good,” taking lead vocals on the latter. Her delivery is a firm departure from her more antic and energetic singing in The C.I.A. Here it takes a detached and cold approach that makes a better fit for the music, but marks a surprising juxtaposition with the song’s lyrical focus of love as a healing balm.
Harmonizer is a record about the self-revelations that can come with a sympathetic mind. “Loathsome nights” turn to more illuminated days, “grown-up-wrong” morphs into feeling entirely right. Within the isolation of the Covid pandemic, it has felt like a process of discovering ourselves all over again at times. While Segall might have been reaching back to the familiar feel of our teen and early adult years, even exploring synths and the gnarled guitars that defined some of the sound of Segall’s own youth, we’ve all undoubtedly felt a bit more of arrested development recently, pinned to the more pragmatic limitations of a plague year. In it, he finds the same solution to both situations: refusing to be molded around a common shape, but finding the right comrades with which to design our own contours. | j neas
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