This is the album everyone needs. I’ve been saying it all year, since its release last April: Awake and Pretty Much Sober is impossible to dislike. Violents is a project helmed by Jeremy Larson where he writes and produces music with an invited guest vocalist; previous projects include Stacy King (Eisley, Sucre), Olga Yagolnikov (Kye Kye), and singer-songwriter Annie Williams. In this iteration Larson teamed up with Monica Martin of midwestern indie band PHOX, and their collaboration is dare I say perfection.
Awake and Pretty Much Sober has simplistic art: a pastel hue cloud behind letters that spell out the title and their names. And there wasn’t any special moment in the making of the music that defines it, though the way Larson describes his nerves about sending Martin an unsolicited collab request is adorable. They teamed up because, in short, she wanted to go outside her comfort zone and he had already written songs specifically for her voice (“or a voice like hers”). Then everything happened to fall perfectly into place to allow them to meet and discuss the project. If there is any defining trait, it is simply the natural serendipity of the circumstances which eventually produced something so beautiful.
For all intents and purposes, this is a pop record, but generous strings and pure poetry of the lyrics elevate it to a new height of the genre. Live versions, such as the Paste interview and their Tiny Desk Concert, tend to leave out drum machines and hand claps, preserving the lush string ensemble elements, and in some ways making the sound feel more serious. And the main motif, with a focus on sobriety, even feels a bit somber. Yes, most of the references to the title indicate a playful party atmosphere, but on the other hand, then why not simply celebrate the celebration?
In any case, on Awake, Martin sings stories of discomfort and loss. Self-doubt crops up on almost every track, though notably on “Spark,” where the narrator simply turns away from those that love her: “You’ll never see that part of me.” This was one of the songs that initially drew my attention for how tender it feels smack in the middle of the album, which until this point has given us many reasons to dance. But what follows is an exasperated and arguably humorous account of vague harassment by someone who can literally not take a hint. That song is called “Second Class,” a cry of feminism if I ever heard one; that it was initially written by Larson is its own comfort.
What cannot be overstated is how much fun this record is to sing along to. It is difficult to emulate Martin’s dexterous vocals, but it’s still worth a try on tracks like “Unraveling” and “Fair.” Larson is a talented composer, and every note has its place, but even still, hearing soaring choruses with alliterative poesy (“Wide-eyed wonder, where did you go?”) or assonance (“Give me closure, give me stone cold composure”) send shivers down my spine. Individually, they all show their expertise, but together, Awake and Pretty Much Sober takes on an emotional weight, one that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll carry happily for at least a year. Or at least until the next Violents project surfaces…or even a Monica Martin solo record.