There’s no way around it, Melkbelly is really weird. Since the 2014 release of Pennsylvania, the Chicago quartet’s first EP, Melkbellly has relished in confounding listeners with a musical style that occasionally borders on schizophrenic. Songs like “Death Dust” careen wildly between tight, controlled instrumental sections and manic noise-rock excess, creating a palpable tension that practically dares the listener to try and find any coherency. Add on almost comically obtuse lyrics, a curious obsession with bodily functions and foodstuffs, and the delightfully nasal Midwestern accent of frontwoman Miranda Winters, and you have the recipe for an utterly confounding yet utterly irresistible performance. For a band as resolutely idiosyncratic as Melkbelly, there’s always the risk of becoming simply too arcane to be listenable, and that’s precisely why Nothing Valley is such a fantastic album. Drawing on both Chicago’s vibrant garage-punk scene and an East Coast oriented indie tradition reminiscent of bands like Ovlov or Speedy Ortiz, Nothing Valley retains every iota of Melkbelly’s strangeness while grounding the band in a wider musical scene.
Nothing Valley isn’t so much a new direction for Melkbelly as it is a distillation of their style. The fact that songs like “Kid Kreative” and “Cawthra” show a degree of restraint during verses only enhances the complete chaos that erupts during the choruses, and Winters’ comparatively evenhanded vocals highlight drummer James Wetzel’s frenetic, explosive fills on “Twin Looking Motherfucker.” While Nothing Valley distinguishes itself from previous albums, it still fits nicely into Melkbelly’s tendency to approach the delicate art of songwriting with a metaphorical hatchet, crafting music that practically drips with gleeful sloppiness. For me, the end result is a sound with deep roots in the Midwestern garage rock scene I’m so fond of, and songs like “Middle Of” capture some of the peculiarities that come with making music in the middle of the country.
Endearingly poor production quality is a hallmark of Melkbelly’s videos, and “Middle Of” certainly doesn’t disappoint. Liam Winters’ awkward mouthing into the camera, the headache inducing jump cuts, and the literal garage setting all contribute to a consciously DIY feel that reminds me of early videos by Melkbelly’s fellow Chicagoans, the Orwells. Musically, “Middle Of” starts out uncomfortably fast and only builds from there, culminating in a wall of noisy drums and guitar chords distorted to the point of sounding like saws. The result is almost nauseating, capturing a distinct sense of anxiety that others have referred to as “vertigo inducing.” According to Melkbelly, the song is meant to evoke the sheer sense of claustrophobic vastness that pervades large swathes of the Midwest. Travelling anywhere in the region, especially in small towns and the suburbs of larger cities like Chicago or Kansas City, means lots of time on seemingly endless highways and plains dominated by scrub, telephone poles, and the occasional decrepit barn. The landscape is so expansive that it becomes almost entrapping, and Midwestern artists from Springfield’s Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin to Elmhurst’s Orwells all tend to touch on the strange disconnect from the rest of the country that comes from living there. Even for people reared in the Midwest, this can be disconcerting, and Melkbelly encapsulates this feeling expertly (On a tangential note, for those interested in trivia, the googly eyes in this video might reference this video by Boston band Speedy Ortiz, whose frontwoman owns the label that released Nothing Valley. Like most of what that band does, it’s quite … unorthodox).
One of the first singles released off the album, “Kid Kreative” is a more personal track referencing the difficulty of life as a woman in the music industry. Miranda Winters has said in interviews that the song is intended to express her frustration at having her ideas co-opted by male musicians who were far more successful with far less effort, and the video shows this through the perennial Melkbelly motif of disconcerting food. Like much of the album, the track is quite simple lyrically, giving Winters’ mocking sneer ample room to dominate the track even as the chorus builds to an eardrum-bursting combination of percussion and guitar thick enough to drown in. Tonally, this cockiness is nothing new; songs like “A Flood” and “Bathroom at the Beach” both benefit greatly from Winters’ snotty lyrics and energetic delivery, but “Kid Kreative’s” acknowledged personal context and reduced reliance on distortion give it a poignancy that gives the already aggressive piece an extra sharpness.
Ultimately, Melkbelly’s still Melkbelly. Like any family (Miranda Winters’ husband Bart Winters and his brother Liam both play in the band,) there’s a certain degree of discord that’s not only acceptable, but necessary. Nothing Valley is just as offbeat and niche as the band’s previous work, but the wild energy that’s always been a part of Melkbelly has been tempered with (minimal) attention to composition and finishing. If this is at all indicative of what Melkbelly is capable of, we still haven’t seen the best of them.
Buy the album here.