Over two studio albums of wiry, skeletal guitar pop, Sophie Allison has turned the Soccer Mommy project into a modest effort to cheer herself up.
Clean, her debut studio album (following a handful of bedroom recordings), showed a fascination with the ways in which having a lover does wonders for the ego and horrors for self-reliance. Sparkling and direct, it had the markings of a cult classic. Color Theory isn’t much different, though a crisper mix toughens its 10 songs; Allison’s voice is right in front, confident about sharing stories about her exile in Guyville.
As the reference suggests, these songs are throwbacks with little in common with the churn in contemporary college radio; next to the whoosh of Grimes and the there/not there synthesized textures of Tame Impala the experience of listening to Color Theory is like stumbling on an older sibling’s Matthew Sweet CDs. “To me, it sounds like the music of my childhood distressed and, in some instances, decaying,” she has said in a statement. And while Avril Lavigne or Taylor Swift may influence her more than ‘90s indie touchstones, Allison revels like a sharp performer in the precisely delineated masochism; she’s closer to the Cure’s Robert Smith, who wrote sharp tunes about eating and being eaten. “With blood on my lips like wine/My eyes glow in the knife,” she sings in “Crawling in My Skin.” Or this one from “Stain”: “‘Cuz I see the noose/It follows me closely, whatever I do.”
Isolate the lyrics, though, and they undersell the precision of the six-string crosstalk. Even when the physical demands of the songs aren’t up to her melodies (the seven-minute “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes,” keyboard layering aside, clops on at least three minutes too long) or vice versa (“Royal Screw Up”), an instrumental detail illuminates the gloom: the reverb in “Up the Walls,” the picked electric notes in “Crawling in My Skin” as insistent as a scab getting picked. Opener “Bloodstream” bops along, a pleasant lilt, until at the five-minute mark a careening solo reminds audiences of what’s at stake for her characters. She’s on to something: how memory works, a disruptor in good and bad times.
But listeners will get the idea from studying Color Theory’s sleeve. Swathed in fluorescent lighting like Laura Dern in David Lynch’s time-bending psychodrama Inland Empire, Elliott however projects something like control, even serenity. Color Theory’s tonal shifts put over by chem-bright hooks suggest Allison is well-aware of an essential pop truth: Sad songs say so much -- when guitars do the talking.