Shoegaze often seems split into two distinct categories: bands who obscure their music beneath million dollar guitar tones and those who allow their songwriting to rise above the reverberating soundscapes. I’ve always found the latter of those two approaches the more compelling. Sure, eschewing convention can lead to some interesting experiments, but in burying the songs there’s little else to cling to but the nagging suspicion that we’re listening to rock covers of old Tangerine Dream tracks. California’s Marriages seem to share that opinion. Instead of writing an ambient album composed of rock instrumentation, they’ve written a rock album shrouded in ambience, and that’s exactly what shoegaze should be. “Salome” is just the type of spaced-out, naval-gazing escapism you’d expect from the genre’s best artists channeled via nine neatly-packaged songs.
“Salome” works so well largely because of its enthralling atmosphere. The record’s instrumentation is unabashedly miasmatic, but it’s also firmly rooted by solid rhythm-work. It feels grounded and airborne all at once, like a vapor trail of smoking tendrils trapped inside a bottle. Tracks like “Southern Eye” and “Binge” would drift like worried smoke if not for the propulsive drum fills anchoring them. When Emma Rundle’s vocals pierce through the noise of “Skin,” it’s hard to imagine the result as so gut-wrenching without the sturdy basswork locking everything into place. Marriages’ debut album sounds free enough to float but only within the confined space of its rock sensibilities. Compelling soundscapes are only part of the picture, though. “Salome” wouldn’t be nearly as successful without keen songwriting to back it up. Fortunately, the band brought it in spades.
Marriages’ made a smart decision in scaling back the metallic sludge and post-rock tendencies of their debut EP, “Kitsune.” Sure, those elements made for an engaging and varied listen, but by refocusing their songs into traditional structures with cleaner production, the band has honed its songwriting to a fine point. The third cut, “Santa Sangre,” is a perfect example of this newfound focus. Working through the standard verse-chorus approach, the song makes itself known, makes its point, and moves on. There’s no deciphering required. Whereas “Kitsune” buried itself beneath multiple ideas and genres, “Salome” operates with simplicity. Tracks like the album’s closer, “Contender,” work so well because of their direct approach. Lesser bands playing this style may have opted for the moody, ambient sprawl as a closer, but it’s clear that Marriages is confident enough in its songwriting to close out the album the same way it began: with a well-crafted rock song shrouded in ambience.
Whether you look at it as a shoegaze record rooted in rock instrumentation or a rock album rooted in shoegaze ultimately makes little difference. Here, Marriages has crafted one of the year’s most exciting debuts. It’s a remarkable consolidation of the band’s best qualities from “Kitsune” that cuts out the excess. Razor sharp and finely honed, “Salome” brims with vitality; it’s the album this band showed itself capable of making, but not the one we expected this soon.