By: Lauren Keene
It’s easy to understand why Soul Low has quickly become one of Milwaukee’s most cherished bands. Since their first full-length release just four years ago, the band has actively cultivated an impressive discography – three LPs, two EPs, one live album, and a handful of singles along the way. Their energetic live shows consistently draw eager young audiences who know the songs as well as the band themselves. Their fans dance and enjoy themselves, providing a refreshing alternative to other Milwaukee rock shows that can at times be pretty daunting.
On the surface, Soul Low’s music is fun, straightforward, easily accessible pop rock. It could fit in well blaring over the speakers at an American Eagle or playing during the credits of an irreverent MTV reality show. It sounds fine whether or not you choose to pay attention to it.
Soul Low, however, makes music worthy of your attention, containing plenty of elements that set them apart from their less memorable contemporaries. Take singer Jake Balistreri’s signature nasally croon, for example. It’s one of those polarizing voices you’ll either love or hate, not much unlike Billy Corgan or Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano. Not surprisingly, Soul Low is often compared to the latter.
Cheer Up, the band’s third full-length release, is easily Soul Low’s most focused work to date. While it can be very easy for rock bands to fall into a trap of blandness, Soul Low’s newest effort boasts a diverse tracklist that explores a wide array of styles and emotions.
The first few tracks on Cheer Up are the album’s lightest and brightest. “Bad Set of Moods” is the opening track, a catchy, dance-a-long reminiscent of Soul Low’s legacy as a party band. Don’t let the irresistible, feel-good power-pop fool you, though – it’s merely a glimmer of hope in an album that’s largely full of anguish.
The bright lights start to dim during “Could Be Nothing”. Though the track still bears the skeleton of a pop song, the dark lyrics reflect on existentialism and death. Soul Low has an admirable ability to drown their sorrows underneath an ocean full of hooks, almost to distract from the misery. “I am a man who knows he’s nothin’ / Trying to get through but sometimes it’s hard to / I wanna stick my head in the oven” Balistreri sings with an audible level of emotion. The track is intensely earnest – it feels like confiding in a close friend.
The album’s standout track “Sad Boy Freestyle” is very much on brand for Soul Low. The song is equal parts goofy and grim, and the band’s collective songwriting abilities are showcased with a slow and steady buildup that leads to a cathartic finish. Keeping with darker lyrical themes, the album also has a track dedicated to infamous serial killer and Milwaukee resident Jeffrey Dahmer. This is no ode to a murderer, though – the track is written from the perspective of an anxiety-ridden child whose fear of Dahmer consumes his innocent thoughts.
“Do you wanna die? So do I,” asks Balistreri in the album’s closer “Cheer Up”. The bleakness comes to a halt when he comforts listeners, reminding them that “everything is fine”. The track is a climactic ending to an album filled with many emotional highs and lows. Soul Low possesses a millennial nihilism that is often imitated, but very rarely duplicated. Their dark sense of humor lightens some of the album’s heavier lyrical themes, turning songs about death into an engaging listening experience.
The album’s transition from joyfulness to darkness indicates the band has seriously refined their craft as artists with consistently excellent and musicianship and songwriting skills. The constant references to the final track throughout the album gives Cheer Up a puzzle-like complexity; the payoff comes once the pieces are all fit together.
Cheer Up could easily be an album that defines the sound of Milwaukee music in 2017. It’s dreary, but still a good time. Milwaukee knows how to make light of a shitty situation, and Soul Low sure as hell does, too.