By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Sing into My Mouth
Guilt Ridden Pop
There's an unspoken temptation for an ambitious musician, though it's perhaps not exclusively a musician's challenge. Like any discipline, music can lure you to ever-greater heights of technical prowess. Thus, symphonies follow sonatas, jazz orchestras follow quintets, and concept albums follow EPs. Yet the hardest thing to do is often to not do the hardest thing, following instinct down a path of lesser resistance, leaving melodies unvarnished and edges jagged.
This is the direction I find my thoughts tending toward while watching Gospel Gossip—a raw, ragged quartet from Northfield with 77 shows, a couple hundred miles, and a stunningly compelling debut album under their belts—perform a set at the Hexagon Bar. Their sound is kinetic—propelled by Ollie Moltaji's frenetic drumming and Justin Plank's furiously driven bass—but also awash in cascading, echoing guitar and fizzing synth textures, courtesy of singer/guitarist Sarah Nienaber and keyboardist Deanna Steege. By set's end, Moltaji will have broken multiple sticks, often without noticing for several bars ("I've been working out," he jokingly explains later), and Nienaber will have ground her tiny Fender Mustang into the Hexagon's stage, breaking a string essential for their set's final song and cutting the whole show short.
Their disappointment at the show's abrupt ending is palpable. Plank laments that he had been practicing specifically for their closer, and Nienaber promises not to let him down in the future. It'd be easy to ascribe their desire to finish strong to youthful vigor; after all, Nienaber is still in school at Carleton College, and the rest of the band members aren't much older. But standing outside of the Hex in freezing temperatures, it feels more like simple heart: a need to meet one's own expectations, regardless of anyone else's.
Gospel Gossip began with a collaboration between Nienaber and Moltaji, although Moltaji and Plank had already been playing together in a hardcore band. "It was kind of like Big Black," says Moltaji, "and then Sarah filmed us once, and I started playing music with Sarah, and then we talked to Justin—it was all kind of haphazard, but it turns out that it was a pretty good mix."
"We played for a long time with just the three of us," adds Nienaber. "Then I got really into Echo and the Bunnymen and [Ollie] already was, so it was my dream to add a synth player." Enter Steege—whose keyboard work tips the band's sound into an equilibrium between raucous and swirling—and the band was ready to record its Guilt Ridden Pop debut, Sing into My Mouth.
On record, the band makes up in breathing room what they lose in fury. The songs draw inspiration from the '80s (the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, Wire) and '90s (Catherine Wheel, Ride, Belly) in equal measure, while avoiding both the '90s disdain for the '80s and the '80s disdain for grit. Plank's bass rumbles along with the kind of thick, nasal tone that takes aggressive picking to generate, and Moltaji keeps steady and insistent time on the drums.
Nienaber's vocals are often breathlessly desperate, but the lyrics are by turns gauzily impressionistic and razor-sharp. "The moon is out and the streets are wet," she sings on "Shadows Are Bent," "So tonight you've got me shaking/You're just happy as long as you've got something/So tonight I don't think I'll be talking." They're the kind of words that hang between telling a story and painting a scene, and as the song unspools through slowdowns and ramp-ups, it lands finally on a note of fragile certainty: "You make me something, baby."
Sing into My Mouth is an auspicious debut, a record that feels like a harbinger of bigger, hairier, more sprawling albums to come, and thus a record that future fans can hold up as the beginning of something brilliant, should it work out that way.
There's a distance to travel between here and there, though, a fact that Gospel Gossip are well aware of. Take, for instance, the double-edged sword of the Minneapolis scene. "It's limiting in some ways," says Moltaji, "because if you become big in Minneapolis, how are you gonna get out of it, but when you do get out of it, there's not a lot [of places] to play. We feel good being in Northfield because we're kind of distant. [But] we love embracing communities and there's a music community in Minnesota that isn't seen very well. Like, you don't see Unicorn Basement or Baby Guts or the Connection on the Current. You hear all the big bands, but there's a really great underground. We like being a part of that."
Considering that even the bigger bands in Minnesota are still well in the underground nationally, we're talking about a subset of a subset here, but that's part of what choosing simpler paths entails. You could polish your sound, tailor it to some demographic, and then grind on that for years, waiting for your big break. Or you could just choose to work with what's around you—even if it means taking some unorthodox approaches to touring.