“You’ve gotta change your heart,” intones Anna Bulbrook amidst a dreamy soundscape, before “Small Problems,” the titular track of the debut EP from The Bulls, lifts off amongst the stiff stacatto of drum and bass.
It’s an apt place to start.
I’ll admit, when I first heard whispers that Bulbrook, violinist/keyboardist/tambourinist/showstopper extraordinaire of The Airborne Toxic Event, was stepping out with a new band, my initial reaction skewed more towards trepidation than celebration.
Not that I wasn’t excited to hear what she had up her sleeve by any means, because I certainly was. It’s just that the news arrived at a skittish time for Airborne fans. Coming as it did on the heels of other foundation-shifting developments for TATE that had only just begun to settle, I feared it portended another major shakeup within the group.
In the ensuing year or so, however, Bulbrook has capably and tirelessly juggled the competing demands of multiple TATE releases and tours with her maiden performances and recorded work with The Bulls, proving that the only thing more impressive than her talent may be her stamina. Perhaps someday down the road the time will come when she has to make a choice (dear god, I hope not). But thus far, the bands appear to be co-existing just fine, freeing fans to enjoy this double portion of Bulbrook goodness guilt free.
And good it is.
From the opening to the closing notes of the quartet of original songs that comprise the EP (we’ll treat the fifth track, a remix of the first single “Come Unwound,” separately), Bulbrook and bandmate Marc Sallis take the listener on an atmospheric journey that is one part Airborne, one part Duke Spirit (Sallis’ other band) and at least two parts something altogether separate.
Dwelling in the realms of shoegaze and new wave, the four tracks borrow elements familiar to those who have followed the musicians’ previous projects, but present them in an entirely new context, revealing different shades and tones in the process. There is a strong sense of identity here, remarkable for a band so early in its evolution. Each song fits seamlessly together to create a cohesive whole, while also bringing something unique and indispensable to the project.
“Every song comes from something real,” says Bulbrook (LA Times). “Either I see it happen to someone else or I feel it happen to me. I’ll shamelessly borrow from other elements of my own reality or elements of other people’s realities and stitch together a story that feels like the world.” In that respect, her process is similar to Airborne Toxic Event bandmate Mikel Jollett’s approach, even if the end result is much different.
The lead track, the aforementioned “Small Problems,” is carried along on the back of a fuzzy bassline and relentless drumbeats as Bulbrook delivers hypnotic verses in a near monotone. The music swells at the chorus as Bulbrook repeatedly implores her closed-off lover to “change your heart” and take their relationship more seriously. The urgency of her pleas is only underscored by Sallis’ fervent guitar solo following the second refrain.
“Rumors,” already a fan favorite after the limited number of shows the band has played to date, jolts the listener with a ringing note right out of the gate, emitted by the guitar that will drive the song throughout. “Crafting a story from experiences of a friend, Bulbrook’s lyrics analyze the quotidian behaviors of a suspicious partner, pining for an honest answer,” writes Brendan Hornbostel of the LA Times. The writer leaves a lot of space to read between the lines, sketching the story in broad enough strokes to allow the listener to imagine the details. As she repeatedly asks, “Are you telling me?” and “Is the rumor true?” we are left to wonder: what exactly is he telling her? What is the rumor? The questions are asked and left unanswered.
“Truly” is, to me, the gem in a sea of jewels. Opening with a soaring riff that could’ve come straight out of the eighties, the track offers up the most fully realized lyrics on the EP, sung flawlessly over dynamic instrumentation that takes us through a number of sharp turns in tempo, ultimately culminating in a cathartic, fist-pumping chorus. Best of all, for those who listened in vain through the first two songs for Bulbrook’s trademark viola to appear, Sallis’ guitar dissolves into a sea of glorious strings that lifts the soul and sets the stage for an impassioned finale.
“Come Unwound” will be familiar to most listeners, having been released way back in October. It feels right at home amongst the other selections, drawing on the full range of the versatile musicians and knit together by a wordless chorus that proves sometimes just as much can be said without words as with them.
The EP closes with the White Sea Remix of “Come Unwound” which was first released through Soundcloud in early 2015. Produced by Bulbrook’s friend Morgan Kibby (aka White Sea), the remix bookends the original with additional strings that frame it very nicely, while adding some lovely layered vocal harmonies. Unfortunately, the middle portion of the track feels a bit flat in comparison, sacrificing some of the lushness that makes the original so riveting. But then, I tend to feel that way about remixes in general; those who are more inclined to enjoy them will very likely feel differently.
Overall, Small Problems is an impressive and confident debut from The Bulls, one that should help the duo build off the established fan bases that have migrated from their native bands and carve out a name for themselves. Recent Bulls gigs have featured a number of other songs that did not make the cut this time around, including “Nothing on Her Mind,” “Prudence,” “New Friends,” and “Running Away,” giving us hope that a full length album may not be too far off.
Small Problems will hit virtual shelves on August 28, but hard copies are already available at The Bulls’ Monday night performances at The Satellite in Los Angeles throughout the month of August.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.