by Matt J. Popham
“I may wear a smile, but you can hear that I speak with an edge,” Emily Whitehurst acknowledges on “Ugly Side,” the opening track from Survival Guide’s debut album, Way to Go. If you were plugged into California’s revitalized punk scene in the 1990’s and early aughts, you probably know Whitehurst from Petaluma’s pop-punk quartet, Tsunami Bomb. You also know she’s not lying.
Perhaps the finest vocalist to emerge from the late century punk revival, Whitehurst – back then, known only as Agent M – was almost equally renowned for her infectiously upbeat stage presence as her clear, confident voice. Her unapologetically melodic vocals flying high over the band’s crunching, muscular riffage, she would positively beam while belting out such cheerful titles as “Russian Roulette,” “Dawn on a Funeral Day,” and “My Machete.” Her next band, the underappreciated and disappointingly short-lived The Action Design, incorporated a number of buoyant pop, indie, and electronic elements into their singular sound, while still maintaining a punk rock edge. With Survival Guide, Whitehurst seems to have abandoned punk altogether, fully embracing her previous project’s synth-pop peregrinations to produce a hauntingly beautiful album that sounds more indebted to Depeche Mode than The Descendents. But, as she notes upfront, its deceptive delicacy conceals an audible edge that’s as hard and sharp as ever.
A dark, diaphanous swirl of ethereal keyboards, ghostly guitars, and of course, Whitehurst’s clarion voice, Way to Go transmutes its dreamy 80’s pop aesthetic into something uneasy, melancholic, at times, even ominous. Despite the prevalence of light and airy melodies, the bedrock of buzzing, bottom heavy keyboards provides a sinister harmonic – occasionally bordering on dissonant – counterpoint, creating an undercurrent of quiet dread, as in the hazy and hypnotic “Prohibition,” whose otherworldly lullaby is offset by its lurking tonal shadows (an atmospheric effect intensified by the creepy lyrical imagery, which seems to evoke The Shining’s infamously ill-fated twin sisters). The pensive pop of the album’s title track is perforated by a quiet, marching percussion, urging Whitehurst’s wistful vocals on with a weathered resolve. Even the pounding, punky chorus of “January Shock” – the album’s most optimistic and energetic track – sounds, for all its promises that the sun will rise again, more like approaching thunder than a new day dawning.
These layered contrasts are accentuated by the frequently mercurial structure of the songs. While most possess a traditional verse-chorus arrangement, they also shift and flow in unexpected ways, changing tone and tempo, seemingly existing in a not quite solid, not quite liquid state. “Shrouded in Steel” begins as an elegiac vocal showcase, then jolts into a portentous confrontation with the fear of death and loss. The hammering, guitar-heavy intro on “One to One” shatters into spooky silences. Instrumental accompaniments materialize and disappear, often ornamented with reverb and/or distortion, adding to the album’s overall atmosphere of unreality and apprehension. The only constant is Whitehurst’s assured, affecting voice which – whether delicately hovering or surging with emotion, offering hard-earned reassurances or probing dark psychic recesses – guides us steadily over the album’s elusive and illusory sonic landscapes.
And it’s here that Whitehurst’s punk past is most evident. For all its apparent liquidity, the album’s aural architecture and introspective lyrics betray a punk dedication to dramatic minimalism and unflinching confrontation. Survival Guide’s instruments and arrangements might not be as heavy or aggressive, its confrontations more inward and reflective, but they are no less passionate or resolute. Whitehurst hasn’t lost her edge; she’s just incorporated it into a larger, more expansive sensibility, using it to go one to one with her own feelings of grief, frustration, and fear, and the result is undeniable. Unsettling, unblinking, but ultimately uplifting, Way to Go seems to be offering just that: A way to go, a survival guide for taking on the ugly side.