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It Looks Sad. - Sky Lake Music Album Reviews

Fleshing out its classic indie-rock sound with synths, Auto-Tune, and other hazy production touches, the North Carolina duo searches for dream-pop atmospheres in the muggy Florida landscape.

As long as rock has competed to be the predominant sound of youth culture, there have been artists in its ranks who want to expedite its concession speech. Adam Levine recently moaned about feeling ostracized from rock music while “all of the innovation and the incredible things happening in music are in hip-hop,” and Matty Healy has made the false genre binary a bedrock principle of the 1975’s album rollout, repeating the same things about rock’s obsolescence that you might’ve heard from Thom Yorke or even Billy Corgan in 1998. Even an indie-rock paragon like Dave Longstreth ended up singing the same tune once he started dabbling as an R&B hired gun. Though his claims about indie rock “miming a codified set of sounds” were predictably taken out of context, he wasn’t exactly wrong—even the most exciting guitar-based music tends to be the result of incremental sonic evolution that still honors past modes. There’s evidence of that process in It Looks Sad.’s Sky Lake, a low-key record from a modest North Carolina duo that immediately scans as modernist indie rock but would have been virtually inconceivable a decade ago.

Sky Lake isn’t a game changer, but a reflection of how the game has changed. Jimmy Turner and Alex Ruiz’s reference points cut off more or less in 2009—a year defined by the emergence of aqueous, sample-based beatmaking and the kind of mid-fi, beachfront guitar rock to which It Looks Sad. initially warranted comparison. These two tendencies often came together in a cocooning aesthetic accompanied by escapist signifiers—at once a retreat toward nostalgia and an expression of millennial malaise before anyone had a term for it. It was frequently dismissed as a fad, but the course for the next decade had been set. In particular, the trend that has clearly influenced It Looks Sad. during the four years that separate their first EP from their debut album is the convergence of vibey rap with vibe indie rock leading to (Sandy) Alex G’s muted appearance on Frank Ocean’s Endless, a kind of 2010s “Walk This Way.”

Turner views Auto-Tune as a go-to sonic tool similar to distortion or reverb, and he sings through all three effects on the opening “Shave.” It’s one of the numerous experiments in pure texture on Sky Lake that could pass for interludes, none longer than two minutes, yet there’s a sense that It Looks Sad. see them as the main point of the project. “Light” is a wisp of a song, barely 80 sounds of amorphous vocal processing, a melody trying to find its path through the amniotic production drip; it was also the album’s first single, drawing a clear break from “Kaiju,” their 2015 digital single, which hewed more towards strident, tuneful emo and unaccountably racked up over 6 million Spotify streams despite zero mainstream coverage and a tiny touring footprint.

While even the band’s own press release admits it’s trite to use “dreamy” to describe a dream-pop album, and the title admittedly does have a “dream-pop album generator” feel to it, Turner’s lyrics are rooted in reality. Sky Lake actually exists—it’s a small, woodsy enclave in Orlando where Turner grew up and an AirBnB can be had for about $40 a night. The album shares an engineer with Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights, but Calvin Lauber here provides the exact opposite of that record’s piercing clarity. The muggy, enveloping Florida heat hangs all over Sky Lake, giving it a tactile, earthy sense of place that’s rare in this mode of indie rock, bolstered by the off-kilter images that dot Turner’s somnolent vocals: palm readers, three-legged dogs, sand disappearing into the ocean, bike rides through blue-black evenings.

It Looks Sad. still occasionally broaden their range by treading too heavily on other bands’ turf. Play the mesmeric guitar instrumental of “Graves” to Zachary Cole Smith and it might take him a minute to determine whether it’s an outtake from Is the Is Are. As much as the presence of pure ambience and guitar-less vignettes situates It Looks Sad. in the current day, it also shows where their strengths lie. And their overall approach really isn’t that much different than it was on “Kaiju” or their 2014 Self-Titled EP. “Drool” evokes shoegaze sublimity grounded in the most mundane desires—“All I really wanna do is sit around and drool with you always/You watch TV, I fall asleep.” Meanwhile, “Everyday” and “Palme” are the kind of propulsive, plaintive, and hooky indie rock typical of Tiny Engines, only gilded by Auto-Tune vocal ripples, brittle drum chatter, synth countermelodies, and a generous application of Floridian humidity. While there isn’t always a clear who to Sky Lake, it’s a fully-developed where.

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