This album could very easily never have happened, and for quite a time the band didn’t know if it ever would. The songs on “Blessing/Curse” are from before, during and after a crisis struck the root of the band: Paige Brubeck’s voice.
It started as an indie-rock dream come true: after forming in Chicago and moving to a giant dusty art loft in St. Louis, Sleepy Kitty’s Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult (Harvey Danger, Bound Stems) spent much of the last decade barnstorming around the East Coast and Midwest in support of their first two albums, Infinity City and Projection Room, all while running a monthly music magazine together and screenprinting rock posters for hundreds of bands to keep the coffers filled. The shows were epic and the band made them into bona fide events: the album release party for Projection Room was a full-blown laser show at the St. Louis Planetarium, and it was such a success that it turned into four sold-out shows.
But as the duo prepared to release their EP Bastard Orphan, a surprisingly moving indie-rock take on Hamilton, it became apparent that something was wrong — the shows were taking a bigger toll on Brubeck’s voice, and they were taking longer to recover from. The band realized they were going to have to take a break from touring and writing to deal head-on with the challenge.
A battery of tests were administered, and eventually a polyp was discovered on Brubeck’s vocal cords.
After two emotionally harrowing surgeries, a week of total vocal silence, and a cautious year-long regime of slowly introducing speech and singing back into her life, Brubeck was finally able to start writing again. They started planning their new album, writing first as a duo before bringing in good friend Ben Schurr (Br’er, Nyxy Nyx) from DC’s rich indie scene for help arranging the songs. You can hear the new layers in the album: after years performing musical magic tricks as a duo, “Blessing/Curse” overflows with melodic bass lines, delay-drenched guitars and gleeful little noisemakers behind Brubeck’s deeply stacked vocal harmonies. The title track slips along like Cate LeBon hanging out in Pavement’s practice space before the guitar solo launches the song straight into outer space, complete with whirring spaceship escort. “Alceste in Silverlake” is a raucous gang-vocal takedown of a prideful LA musicians-wanted advert, and both “Bigger Picture” and “Do It Without Me” channel pent-up political frustration into crackling electric energy. But it’s Brubeck’s cinematic, elegiac guitar solo at the center of “Poor Gilles” that might be most likely to be found still bouncing around your head days after a single spin.
As songs got finished up, Brubeck and Sult decided to relocate from the city that had taken such good care of them to the city they couldn’t stay away from: New York. They handed off their amazing loft space in St. Louis to a fellow musician/artist and set up shop a thousand miles east in Brooklyn.
And of course, this being recent history, it was just as they were booking their first NY show as residents that the world came crashing down in a global pandemic. Like everyone else, they held on for dear life, waiting out the giant lull, keeping to themselves and getting used to life without its usual demands.
Never had “Blessing/Curse” seemed a more fitting title: all this time isolated from friends and the music world, but also all this time for reflection and personal study — frustrating and liberating at the same time. Sleepy Kitty took the down time out to polish off the album with collaborators in DC, St. Louis, Nashville and New Mexico. The result is their best album yet, with a complexity and dynamic range that spans from snappy political punk (“New Job Debbie,” “Bigger Picture”) to soaring psych-rock guitar blasts (“Sometimes,” “Outta My Mind”). Brubeck’s pop chops and ongoing fascination with French pop culture feature in “Alceste in Silverlake” and “Poor Gilles,” and her epic solos arrive via both guitar and distorted vocals. It’s an album full of confidence and experience, the sound of emerging from a crisis with a sense of hard-won joy intact.
And finally, “Blessing/Curse” will be released internationally via Oslo’s Nordic Records (Philter, Vant, Al Costelloe) digitally and in a limited vinyl edition. Sleepy Kitty will be hitting the stages of New York, Paris and London this summer, with more US and international touring to follow.