Imaginative artists of the first order, Brooklyn-based Johanna Stahley and Owen O’Mahony of TKTTSM are set to release their debut self-titled album mid-October on Sumxuni Records, and it’s a knockout. Thirty-six minutes or so of aggressively melodic, sing-song, psych-rock/candy-pop tunes blast by and dreamily collide at the crossroads of rock and pop, hitting the sonic sweet spot. Each song is distinct from the others, yet still melds various musical styles together in kick-ass harmony.
The texture is dense and at times surreal, but precise, from the crisply dynamic drumming to the rousing to trippy guitar riffs and from Johanna’s spilled-Skittles to smoother vocal delivery to the wordplay of the lyrics. Johanna projects an innocence liberally spiked with demented menace on several songs which is funhouse-mirrored by Owen’s freaky-fantastic guitar lines.
The pep in Johanna’s step is tempered by some downright nihilistic lyrics on certain songs (“Plastic people smile (and die!)” from lead single “Plastic Fantastic” and “We’re all going to die…” from “Edumication”), but this preoccupation with death is counterbalanced by some life and freedom-affirming lyrics like on “Calisthenics” (“…break free from the prison system.”) and “Japanteup” (“…let the future arise / free these bones…”). On stunner “Eyeyeye” Johanna and Owen sum up this cycle of life and death with what are possibly the best lyrics of the album: “Bones and buildings / pretty much the same / They both grow up / and then die again”.
The bouncy “Calisthenics” and fizzy “Plastic Fantastic” start the album off in battle mode, sabotaging pop song structures with serrated to swirling guitar riffs and Johanna’s initially sweetly enunciated vocals giving way to defiantly screamed out words. The “…fantastique…” refrain will buzz in the brain for days. Johanna and Owen then confound the hyped-up listener by mixing in some wistful alt-folk on the lovely third number “I Wanted To”, with Johanna singing breathily in longer, lamenting phrases (“I wanted you / but you have gone away / and there’s nothing…I can do”), propelled along by guitar jangle and a slow flow of horns.
It’s then back to a full force attack on the freaktastic “Edumication” as a gleefully psychotic Johanna babydoll-babbles through the wild lyrics and Owen tramples all in his path with raging rock guitars. Who knows what they’re on about (dumbing down of modern culture, reality vs. video games, opposition to corrupt powers, sex and candy…?), but it’s a fun ‘n’ awesome sonic rush.
In an album of winners, “Eyeyeye” takes top prize for its far-out dreamy sound of constantly running bass line, molten lava psych-rock guitars, and Johanna’s delicately extended, baby’s breath vocal delivery. TKTTSM turns to a different page on “Dear Diary”, employing a straightforward, alt-rock sound that emerged the 1990s. Johanna even changes her vocal range, settling into the medium setting as she plaintively declares “We all dissolve the same way.”
Johanna lets fly F-bombs and references to alcohol on “Japanteup”, another sneaky song that starts off bright and chipper, and then has Johanna expressively roaring out in Riot Grrrl style on the chorus amid Owen’s angular, surf-like guitar line. The lyrics rail against corruption of leaders in power positions and rather pessimistically asks “Are we almost finished with this culture’s demise?” The takeaway message, however, seems to allude to the future and the idea of retaining one’s individuality and freedom.
The low-key “Porcupine” is also, conversely, for a time, noisy, with Johanna’s hushed, wandering vocals augmented by Owen’s shadowy tone in the background. The subdued atmosphere is broken up with a sudden slam as Johanna shouts harshly “I want to fight for something worth fighting for / I want to live for something worth dying for.” Talk about raging against the machine! Peace is restored on the last song “Focus”, where dreamy, uplifting guitars glide along and Johanna sing-talks in a light and sweet intonation that “It’s all imagination.”