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Less than an hour south of Chicago, along the shores of Lake Michigan, sits the Indiana Dunes, a protected expanse of shoreline recently designated a National Park. When Ella Williams first visited the Dunes, she was awed by the juxtaposition of its natural splendor within the surrounding industrial corridor of Northwest Indiana. “Every time I go there, it changes my life,” she says, without a hint of hyperbole.“You stand in the marshlands and to your left is a steel factory belching fire and to your right is a nuclear power plant.” Across the water, Chicago waits, its glistening towers made possible by the same steel forged here. For as long as she’s been making music, Ella Williams’ songs have been products of the environments they’re written in, born out of the same world they so vividly hold a mirror to. This environment is where her magnetic new album, Tomorrow’s Fire, lives.
The music Williams makes as Squirrel Flower has always communicated a strong sense of place. Her self-released debut EP, 2015’s early winter songs from middle america, was written during her first year living in Iowa, where the winter months make those of her hometown, Boston, seem quaint by comparison. Since that first offering, Squirrel Flower has amassed a fanbase beyond the Boston DIY scene and released two more EPs and two full-lengths. The most recent, Planet (i), was laden with climate anxiety, while the subsequent Planet EP marked an important turning point in Williams’ prolific career; the collection of demos was the first self-produced material she’d released in some time. With a renewed confidence as a producer, she helmed Tomorrow’s Fire at Drop of Sun Studios in Asheville alongside storied engineer Alex Farrar (Wednesday, Indigo de Souza, Snail Mail). Williams and Farrar tracked many of the instruments, building the songs together during the first week, and then assembled a studio band that included Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver), Seth Kauffman (Angel Olsen band), Jake Lenderman (aka MJ Lenderman), and Dave Hartley (The War on Drugs) lending their contributions.
Before Tomorrow’s Fire, Squirrel Flower might’ve been labeled something like “indie folk,” but this is a rock record, made to be played loud. As if to signal this shift, the album opens with the soaring “i don’t use a trashcan,” a re-imagining of the first ever Squirrel Flower song. Williams returns to her past to demonstrate her growth as an artist and to nod to those early shows, when her voice, looped and minimalistic, had the power to silence a room. Lead singles “Full Time Job” and “When a Plant is Dying,” narrate the universal desperation that comes with living as an artist and pushing up against a world where that’s a challenging thing to be. The frustration in Williams’ lyrics is echoed by the music’s uninhibited, ferocious production. “There must be more to life/ Than being on time,” she sings on the latter’s towering chorus. Lyrics like that one are fated to become anthemic, and Tomorrow’s Fire overflows with them. “Doing my best is a full time job/ But it doesn’t pay the rent” Williams sings on “Full Time Job” over careening feedback, her steady delivery imposing order over a song that is, at its heart, about a loss of control.
Williams cites artists like Jason Molina, Tom Waits, and Springsteen as fonts of inspiration for Tomorrow’s Fire, musicians who knew how to write into the mind of a stranger, who could tell you the story of a life in under four minutes. “The songs I write are not always autobiographical, but they’re always true,” Williams says. Nowhere is Springsteen heard more clearly than on “Alley Light,” an electrifying song narrated from the perspective of a down-on-his-luck guy whose car is fated to die any day now and whose girl just wants to escape. There’s a vintage sheen to it, but “Alley Light” captures the very familiar feelings of loss that come with living in a 21st century city, where you blink and the storefronts change. Williams notes, “It’s about a man in me, or a man who I love, or even a man who is a stranger to me.”
The album glides effortlessly over emotional states of being, lightness and heaviness. “Intheskatepark,” written in the summer of 2019, four years later sounds like a dispatch from a bygone world. The scuzzy pop production nods to Guided By Voices, as Williams sings about crushing under summer sunshine. “I had a light,” Williams repeats mournfully on “Stick,” her voice at once aching and powerful, a sense of rage fermenting as the song goes on, until it explodes in the second half. “This song is about not wanting to compromise, just being at the end of your rope,” Williams says. “Stick” harnesses that exasperation and turns it into a battle cry for anyone who is exhausted but feels like they’re not working hard enough, who had to get a job they hate to make rent, who lost their light and can’t seem to find it again.
Tomorrow’s Fire might sound like the title of an apocalypse album, but it’s not. Tomorrow’s Fire references the title of a novel Williams’ great-grandfather Jay wrote about a troubadour, named for a line by the Medieval French poet Rutebeuf, a troubadour himself: “Tomorrow’s hopes provide my dinner/ Tomorrow’s fire must warm tonight.” Centuries on, the quote spoke to Williams, who describes the fire as a tool to wield in the face of nihilism. Tomorrow’s Fire is what we take solace in, what we know will make us feel okay in the morning, how we light the path we’re walking on.
Closing track “Finally Rain” speaks to the ambiguity of being a young person staring down climate catastrophe. The last verse is an homage to Williams’ relationship with her loved ones — ‘We won’t grow up.’ A stark realization, but also a manifesto. To be resolutely committed to a life of not ‘growing up,’ not losing our wonder while we’re still here.
For Greg Mendez, reflection doesn’t mean a static image in a mirror, or even a face he recognizes. It’s more a kaleidoscopic mirage, where paths taken shapeshift with the prospect of paths untread, and the subconscious merges with the intentional. On his self-titled new album, the Philadelphia-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist investigates the shaky camera of memory, striving to carve out a collage that points to a truth. But there isn’t a regimented actuality here; instead, Mendez highlights the merit in many truths, and many lives, and how even the hardest truths can still contain some humor.
While this is technically Mendez’s third full-length album, his back catalog boasts an extensive range of EPs and live recordings. He’s a prolific and thoughtful songwriter, understanding the joy in impulse, and shying away from the clinical sheen of overproduction. 2017’s “¯_(?)_/¯” and 2020’s Cherry Hell garnered acclaim for their quiet, lo-fi urgency, exploring themes of addiction and heartbreak with an intentional, authentic haze, and it’s this approach that has solidified Mendez as a staple in the DIY community for years.
Greg Mendez was written in fragments, some stretching across more than a decade, with Mendez reworking old ideas and arrangements, and others blossoming much more recently. The weight of time––and perhaps the anxiety in running out of it––clouds the album, as Mendez prods at some painful experiences from his childhood and early adulthood. The common thread connecting the characters is their evident imperfections, and the various degrees of damage they cause, both knowingly and unknowingly. But where do we draw the line between a good person and a bad person? For Mendez, it’s never been that easy.
“There’s a lot of pretty bleak memories in the songs but one thing that I hope comes through is that nothing is ever fully dark,” he explains. While recognizing the severity of certain situations, Mendez is also careful to showcase the absurdity of our reality, and how that can often highlight a softness around the edges. Opener “Rev. John / Friend” begins with a cartoonish organ, like a sermon waiting to start, correlating with the album’s artwork: a Virgin Mary staring at Mendez’s name. It’s a smirk at the serious, where earnesty can still be encouraged, and the light and the dark can effortlessly co-exist.
Throughout the album, Mendez extends an empathetic and relatable hand. The scrappy-pop of “Goodbye / Trouble” waits for “the sound of God,” searching for a sense of love or purpose, but the searcher falls apart in the process. The stripped back, finger-picked “Best Behavior” probes the spite and immaturity that can arise when we feel hurt or wronged, and how lonely that can leave us. “Maria” mimics those moments when we reach back to a story and find ourselves immersed in its scenery, using melodic swells to charge like a memory that floats in front of us, creating a gauze until we manage to tear ourselves out of it. “Everytime you say you wanna know me I get anxious, cause I would probably tell you about some dumb shit,” the song begins, glancing at those who also feel wary to show their full selves.
Mendez encourages us to look beyond the rigidity of a one, true self. Some of the “I’s” on Greg Mendez are not Mendez at all but someone unknown, a person formed to explore the shadows in his periphery. Writing from a different perspective doesn’t happen intentionally, and Mendez only tends to notice it after sitting with the song for some time. “It’s kind of like dreams, where they end up being the stuff that your brain is processing, but you’re not aware that you’re doing it,” he says. It’s an exhale, where Mendez allows his instincts to flourish.
Greg Mendez is an intimate dialogue between the chapters we’ve experienced, and how they can inform the reality we perceive. It’s a reminder that we are constantly shifting, ever-changing selves and that if we ruminate too long, we may find ourselves stuck in the seriousness of it all. Here, Mendez allows us to take the time to notice what happens outside of the framework we may have built for ourselves, and the beauty that can occur when we finally do.
$18 Advance – $23 Day of Show