Hello All! Katie here again, and I have to say, I’m beginning to question my “#katiemullinsagainstwinter” hashtag, because I feel like I might have accidentally called when Winter went all in. If you are in the Midwest, I’m here with you, suffering and confused. I really thought I’d been a little clearer that I was AGAINST this kind of weather, but the phrase “polar vortex” implies I— and even my hashtags!— don’t control the weather. My apologies. I really thought we had this beat. As it is, let’s turn our thoughts to something more dazzling than snow and ice, warmer than your fireplace, and more fun than— well, literally anything I’ve seen scroll across the bottom of my television screen in months— the newest member of the Underwater Sunshine Fest family, Fort Gorgeous!
Brooklyn band Fort Gorgeous is hitting the exact tone I’m constantly searching for in winter: thoughtful lyrics but music that is fun, layered, and easy to listen to, similar to bands like Ok Go and Andrew McMahon & The Wilderness. There is some great guitar work and some mild existentialism that’s washed over well with ninja-levels of un-dated synth and beautiful vocals. There’s not a track I’ve found so far that I didn’t hit “repeat” on. Though the band is out of Brooklyn, it has enough of a soft California tone that you almost miss the clear edges of the songs. Before I talk a little more about the individual tracks, though, I want to introduce you to the band itself.
The project of singer/songwriter Billy Libby, Fort Gorgeous is the only band so far whose bio I have read and thought, “You know what: I don’t even want to do better than that.” So I’m going to show you who BILLY says they are, and then we’re going to get into the music, which I promise is going to make you forget about how horrible the weather is for at least an EP. (Thanks for buying us a while, Billy! …and yes, it WAS hard for me to avoid saying, “Thanks for holding down the fort.” And yes, I realize this was a way for me to make and unmake the joke. A Schrödinger’s Dad joke, if you will.)
Ask Fort Gorgeous who they are and their Facebook page says: “…As a person sitting on a see-saw of optimism and pessimism, Billy creates pensive and atmospheric songs based heavily on intricate guitar melodies with lyrics that contemplate themes like death and the severity of all choices made in life. When not slipping into the darkness of all of life's "what ifs", Billy is often excited about life like a kid at an arcade with $30.” Well. I absolutely want to meet that person. I might want to be that person. And the music is absolutely the product of a philosophical soul trapped in the body of a kid who feel likes they have all the freedom in the world, not yet knowing their limitations— and hell, maybe never finding any. What a delight that is for us, the listener.
So when the EP The Bottom of the Sea cracks open with the first song, “Round and Round,” it’s slightly off-syncopation, lyrics entering just a little bit off the shuffle beat which is beefed up with shaker throughout the song. The STRIKING that the first words we’re greeted with are:
What can I say with a broken mouth?
I see it all, I see nothing
Let’s go down, I go on about the same old things
Wearing it out, I’m wearing it out
Cos I can’t leave that dead horse alone
So I’ll ask— Is it true?
And I should just know—
It’s the emperor’s new clothes
It’s the blind leading the blind
So round and round I go
The song starting with synthed and distorted sounds over the first two lines which are just a little off really throws the listener when the music spills over, swells into something magic by “So I’ll ask, is it true?” It feels like heartbreak pouring out. This is one of the first moments I’ve heard on a record in a long time that just oozed the same way the emotion was supposed to— and though the writing is excellent, it wasn’t the lyrics that informed me of what the emotional timbre was. The music drops in and out on several lines, notably before “Round and round I go,” but we get so many little hints that there are a lot of moments the narrator doesn’t fully understand. There’s a phenomenal line (in, arguably, a much sadder context) in Joann Beard’s brilliant essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” where the narrator says, “I had a moment to decide whether or not I understood. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said.” In “Round and Round,” Libby is very clearly trying to make what he’s seeing untrue— he’s trying not to understand, but to not understand. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems. “Round and Round” is a perfect title.
There are great moments throughout: in fact, my favorite is in the second verse when Libby sings, “Carry the weight of nothing” and all of the music drops out, led back in by a shaker. The guitars and drums pick up in intensity by the end so that after the second chorus you are bombarded with a sonic understanding of his confusion: “I cannot believe my eyes, so I’ll ask: Is it true?” We didn’t know at the beginning of the song he could see anything— we knew he had suspicions. This is an expertly told story, and it’s done in a way where Libby pockets so many of the saddest lines, hides them in drums, or drops the music out just in time to slip the knife in before the speed of the song comes back around.
That is only the first song.
I want so desperately to talk about every song on this record, and I want to go through line by line and talk about how excellent the ideas are: from “Patterns,” “I want to live in a city and die in a small town” is one of my favorite chorus lines I’ve heard in a long time. “Watch the Paint Dry” does some pretty magical things in the way it reminds us that by doing nothing we actually conjure the parts of our lives that are either most important or most terrifying to us. “Chickadee” has some of the most beautiful words that evoke the images they’re creating.
That was an elaborate trick. Those are all the songs on the EP… except “Wishing Well,” which is so striking and almost painfully gorgeous that its impossible to avoid it. Using similar chord changes to a lot of Duncan Sheik’s best writing (see his work with the Spring Awakening music or the song “She Runs Away”) which sets an unsettled tone: but since this is where we encounter the title of the record, the bottom of the sea, it’s not a huge surprise that some of the song seems like we’re being submerged. For example, as we fade out of the chorus (where he actually says “It’s flickering out…”) and back under for the second verse, we’re treated to this:
Where it ends, who could know
And wherever it leads is where I’ll go
At the bottom of the sea, I’ll dig my toes
And rest my bones…
Though Fort Gorgeous is lush and beautiful, and there are moments of peace, don’t be lulled into too much of a stupor: Billy Libby has created a whole soundscape here, and what that means is we don’t know what is around the next corner. When someone can hear a world underneath the noise and the chaos of the one we already live in— and not only tell stories about it, but write music that mimics those stories and elevates us— well, that’s a band to watch. And I personally cannot wait to see what Fort Gorgeous can do.