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Ruler - Winning Star Champion Music Album Reviews

Ruler - Winning Star Champion Music Album Reviews
Seattle indie scene veteran Matt Batey contrasts bouncy power-pop with lyrics about anxiety and failure on his cathartic solo debut for Barsuk.

Power-pop isn’t necessarily the ideal medium for defeatism, but Matt Batey makes the unexpected combination of style and mood work. On Winning Star Champion, his debut LP as Ruler, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter reckons with anxiety and failure, in lyrics that act as perfect cloud cover for the sunshine his bright, infectious melodies constantly radiate.

It's hard to make feeling bad sound so good, but Batey pulls it off with ease. A fixture of Seattle's indie rock scene over the last decade, he’s played in Rocky Votolato's band and been part of the synth-driven indie-pop outfit Cataldo. Around 2011, he began working on his Ruler material in earnest, paying his compositions sporadic attention while working day shifts at Alaska Airlines. “I'm very poor,” he told Billboard in a remarkably candid interview that accompanied the premiere of his single “Petrified,” explaining that, “Sometimes I had money to spend on stuff, so that's when I would take time in a studio, and when I didn't have money it just kind of stopped."

In the same interview, Batey connected his struggles with anxiety to the experience of turning 30 and watching his friends settle down and start families while he kept making music and barely paying bills. When he left home, at age 18, he told himself, “‘I'm not gonna be one of those guys that just plays in this band forever.’” But now, “12 years later it's like, 'OK, maybe I will be that guy.’” That revelation fuels Winning Star’s “Cars and Houses,” a swinging highlight in which Batey's boyish voice contrasts his peers’ aspirational, suburbs-and-minivan lifestyle with his own days spent gigging through small towns and crashing on floors.

Some songwriters may hit 30 and decide they have it all figured out, but he's forthcoming about not having all the answers—or, really, any of them. “When I get a new book I always draw in straight lines/For at least a couple pages I can pretend that is what I'm like,” Batey sings on the jangly title track, in which he also admits to being "the winning star champion of fucking up.” On “The Cure,” a simple bass-and-drum pairing buoys a dark pronouncement: “One day I'll relax/And it will be perfect/To feel my bones under the ground.” Fatalism often sounds self-pitying or pretentious, but Batey’s admissions don’t come off as performative. He’s simply expressing the salient truth that modern life can be exhausting.

Lest he come across as too much of a mope, though, Winning Star packs even its most morose tracks with bursts of exuberance. Like Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest, Batey uses rock music to transmute his anxiety into fist-pumping catharsis. Assisted by a bevy of Pacific Northwest studio geeks (including his co-producer and kindred spirit Michael Lerner, of Seattle power-pop mainstays Telekinesis), he finds joy in joylessness. “Petrified” thrashes with an energy akin to that of late-era Superchunk, while the winding “Unhindered Pace” is garnished with lovely vocal harmonies and a floaty keyboard solo. Smack dab in the middle of “Cars and Houses,” Batey lets loose with an exuberant “whoa-oh-oh” over guitars that sound massive, in a shameless act of rock indulgence that nonetheless feels appropriate to the song.

For much of the current decade, the kind of sugary, hook-laden rock music that predominates on Winning Star has been woefully unfashionable. Meanwhile, the album’s quieter moments (particularly "Get to You," with its chugging drum machine) evoke early Death Cab for Cutie, who’ve maintained their cultural cachet even as their whispery, wordy songwriting style has largely ceased to influence younger bands. So it makes sense that Batey has found a home on Death Cab’s old label, Barsuk, which has persisted for years in supporting this specific variety of indie rock. An alternately raucous and pensive soundtrack to fucking up, getting by, and learning from all of it, Winning Star is proof that the Barsuk sound is still worth championing.


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