Not Such A Small World, After All

Frankie Cosmos, Eskimeaux, and Japanese Breakfast make confident creative leaps on their latest albums

Two years ago, a cluster of young musicians from the Northeast started a SoundCloud page called May 5 to 12 Songs as a quiet space to post their demo recordings. While the project reached only a small audience — it has just over 500 followers — the lo-fi sketches revealed a thriving scene with songwriting talent to spare. “I can tell you’re afraid, and I hate to see you that way / But I could be your loner, if you would be my stoner," Eskimeaux's Gabrielle Smith sang on "Alone at the Party," one of many songs posted with enough vivid, relatable lyrics to make a laptop-quality recording feel like real life.

At the time, the only member of the group with much of a public profile was Frankie Cosmos, a.k.a. Greta Kline, whose 2014 album Zentropy won broad critical acclaim; up to that point, she had largely been known through a cultish fanbase dedicated to her rather prolific Bandcamp output. The rest of the artists behind May 5 to 12 Songs — Eskimeaux, Florist, Japanese Breakfast, and Small Wonder — were essentially unknowns. But since then, this informal group of friends has blossomed into one of the most exciting cliques in indie rock. For anyone who's been following them since those SoundCloud days, the new albums that Frankie Cosmos, Eskimeaux, and Japanese Breakfast released this spring are a rich reward, anchored by the fully realized versions of some of those initial song-sketches.

Frankie Cosmos’s Next Thing breezes by in barely half an hour, but her songwriting is so densely detailed that playing the album again right away isn’t a bad idea. "Washed up already, I’d sell my name for a free pen / On it, the name of your corporation," Kline sings on "I'm 20," a dry observation on the state of tension between contemporary art and commerce. She balances that kind of quip with wide-eyed observations on “Outside with the Cuties”: “I haven’t written this part yet / Will you help me write it?” she sings, inviting the listener to participate in her world rather than remaining a passive observer. In the past, Kline had a habit of ending her songs abruptly as soon as she'd expressed all her thoughts; on Next Thing, she gives them more space to breathe. She has a full band behind her — notice the drums! — and even compared to the synth-heavy sound she introduced on last fall's Fit Me In EP, there's a new sense of life and motion in the music. "Too Dark," originally heard as a skeletal acoustic lament on 2014's Bandcamp-only Affirming Glinting, has a confident forward momentum even as it explores the same questions of self-doubt. "If your love was strong as my shame / I'd marry you and take your name / But it's not, you'll never get it," she sings. Even with a slightly bigger stage, Kline knows how to make her songs feel perfectly small.

Eskimeaux’s Gabrielle Smith can still write songs that effortlessly jump between a whisper and filling a room. But on Year of the Rabbit, a brief follow-up to 2015’s O.K., she scales back those dynamics for a more subdued strength. Instead of the cathartic sing-alongs familiar from her band's live sets, like "Broken Necks" and "Alone at the Party" (the first song released for the May 5 to 12 Songs project), we get "Year of the Rabbit" and "Sleeping Bear" — songs that never strive for such heights, content to let their energy taper off softly. Still, no matter the volume, Smith’s songwriting shines. “Wish I could love you less / Like a praying mantis / Rip your head off every time it starts to feel right,” she sings on “Power" — an opening line that provides a sharp, unexpected insight into the contrasting emotions that can come with caring deeply for someone.

Japanese Breakfast, the solo project of singer Michelle Zauner, began as a way for her to explore spare, stripped-down sounds outside of her Philadelphia band Little Big League. She ended up stepping away from that group a few months after the May 5 to 12 Songs project, and her new album Psychopomp returns her to a fuller band sound, as heard on the shimmering opening track "In Heaven." The record departs from the pop-punk of Little Big League and the bedroom sound of Zauner's previous solo recordings, and it succeeds in moving toward an ephemeral dream-pop that sheds fresh light on her songwriting. She has more room to explore her sound here, as heard on the instrumental “Psychopomp” and "Triple 7," the slow ballad that closes the album.

"The world is pretty big / It’s cool we fit on it / It makes me want to grow / So I can go see more," Kline sings on the chiming, surging "Embody," another highlight of Next Thing that she developed from an older Bandcamp demo. That spirit of measured ambition comes through in all these albums — confident steps forward made by master miniaturists who have opened up their worlds just enough to reward longtime fans' patience and welcome new ones in.

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