It's easy to be a pretty good band. Playing a few chords and humming a jaunty tune can get a band where it needs to go, if where it needs to go is "fine." But being a great band—one that balances honesty with verve, emotion with craft—that's hard as hell. Strange Relations, made up of Casey Sowa (drums/vocals) and Maro Helgeson (bass/synth), is a great band. Their second full-length album, Editorial You, is as excellent a collection of synth and guitar-driven emotionalism as you're likely to find this year. The duo have enough command of pop-writing and depth of influence that they could easily skate by on surface pleasures (and those pleasures are for sure there) but they opt for an odder proposition.
Sowa and Helgeson met in college in Philadelphia and they've been playing music together almost as long as they've been together ("About 10 years now," Sowa says). They started Strange Relations soon after moving to Minneapolis. They call the band's genre "diary rock," which they say is meant to "reference the vulnerability at the center of this project."
"To paraphrase something Karen O once said," Sowa continues. "'There's nothing more punk than a heartfelt ballad,' and that sentiment has always guided our approach."
Quoting the singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs as part of their mission statement gives an indication of one of the band's major charms. Most other bands would either deny any influences or stick to obvious canon choices like Joy Division or Nirvana—I, being old, hear hints of Kate Bush and Sparks—but Strange Relations make no effort to hide their youth and enthusiasms, proudly working within an indie/post-punk tradition and citing bands like Metric by name early and often.
"I see being able to clearly name influences as a strength; it's another tool of writing," Sowa says. "I also don't believe in the concept of 'guilty pleasures,' at least not when it comes to music, so I'm not afraid to be honest about the bands I grew up listening to and that still inspire me. A lot of people would ask 'why wouldn't you just say you're influenced by Joy Division instead of Bloc Party, that's so much cooler?' And I'm like 'because I never really listened to Joy Division but Bloc Party were one of my favorite bands growing up, that's why.'"
Following 2015's -Centrism and a couple of EPs, Editorial You takes an art-pop approach to indie rock, sidestepping a lot of the tedium inherent to the genre. While focused, Strange Relations touch on a wide array of sounds, from the chiming pipes of "NBE" to the ghostly garage of "Ignore Me," with styles shifting within a single song, consistently zigging when the zag would perhaps be easier. "I'm not a big fan of albums that are too one-note," Sowa says. "So many records feel like they have one sound or idea and just kind of sit in that throughout the entire record, they're closed off to a sense of exploration. You know, those records that are kind of like 'okay, here's the single, and here are 9 different versions of essentially that single.'"
Musically light on its feet, Editorial You is as lyrically heavy as this bullshit existence demands, but the band places a premium on empathy. "While the album is really about ambition and desire and how various internal and external pressures affect those forces in our lives," Sowa explains. "One idea I really wanted to explore throughout the record was this pressure to be or become desirable in order to fulfill one's own desires." The record becomes a moving exploration of bodies and danger and the external traumas that are always lurking around the corner—but it's somehow still suitable as suitable for communal dance parties as it is for solitary headphone reveries or long, lonely drives into an uncertain but reasonably hopeful future. Strange Relations manage that difficult task because they're, yes, great.
Zachary Lipez only likes great bands. He's on Twitter.