The lead into this was a bit trying, with uncertainty on how to begin this. Punk comes in a variety of flavors, and everything isn’t always edible. Where are we going with this? Well, Julia, Julia is the brainchild of Julia Kugel, singer/guitarist for Atlanta’s The Coathangers and her new solo project couldn’t be any further removed from the sound of the band. Derealization (Suicide Squeeze) is the album here in question, projecting a softer side of Kugel we may have never known existed within.
For the most part, Kugel’s cooing vocals are impactful but not for the reasons you may think; seems it’s more about the compositions themselves that are meant for further study. Take “Forgive Me” as an example, where her voice floats throughout, as background harmonies drift around, but it’s the acoustic guitar, wind instruments, and sparse percussion that we should take note of. As everything is meshed, it’s pretty phenomenal. There’s a juxtaposition within that shouldn’t work but it does. Then there’s “Fever In My Heart,” with a subtle but infectious melody that’s encapsulated in its simplicity but takes nothing away from the music itself. The multiple harmonies find a happy meeting place as they swing back and forth delicately. They bend but don’t break.
I find myself completely enraptured within “No Hard Feelings,” filled with heartbreak alongside just Kugel’s sole guitar. Her effected vocals add so much depth to the song that it seems to become more than just a singular instrument. But it’s the slight dirge of “Do It Or Don’t” that I keep coming back to, as it seemingly drags but doesn’t. The horns that fill the atmosphere play off somewhat like a Louisiana funeral march but here it’s beautifully enchanting as are Kugel’s vocal melodies.
With Derealization, it seems Julia Kugel is doing something different, with her voice, her instrumentation, and song structures themselves. While others artists have affectionately filled songs with cooing vocals, Kugel seems to move…differently here. Everything is purposeful and we see the challenge she’s making to listeners. It’s done all too well.
As we move further into the tail end of the year, for some reason it seems artists seem to up their game. At this point, while there’s no certainty that it happens every year except in 2022, it seems to be happening at a steady pace. It hasn’t happened at a staggering rate but it’s enough for anyone to take notice. This leads us now to NY by-way-of Charlotte, NC artist LUCI, who isn’t easy to figure out, genre-bending through soulful R&B, Hip-Hop, Punk, while also incorporating and an assortment of afro rhythms on her debut EP Juvenilia (Don’t Sleep).
From the start, Juvenilia burns with the essence of Caribbean fire as the deep alluring bass & drum loops of “Ash and Dust” collides with LUCI’s unique cadence and vocal interplay. She sets the tone from the get-go here, with no fucks given. When she hollers “…They never met a bitch like me/assassinate the character/you gonna have to come fight me” one gets the sense that they can come at her but may encounter a fuck-around-and-find-out scenario. The track is visceral and energetic allowing everyone to engage with LUCI. It doesn’t prepare anyone though for the self-deprecating “Am I Good,” as LUCI wraps all her hate, her love, her sadness, into one track. It’s clear through the chorus when singing “I’m fucked up for real,” but she adds she “never gave a fuck,” with clear attempts to work on her own mental sanity through therapy. We get a sense that when she sings, “I smoke, I smoke, I smoke the pain away,” she’s caught in a continuous Groundhog Day momentum. Her words are touching, overlaying vocals throughout, beautifully collected while offering a sense of tugging emotions in different directions.
While she does pull from varying genres, no two songs are the same while still remaining unquestionably LUCI. This isn’t an easy task and when “Do You” hits, there’s familiarity in the delivery but it’s not what anyone may have thought of, or even remember (“But that is a story for another time.” – Mako). The musical soundscape brings her emotionally charged lyrics to life as she interjects infectious melodies. It’s captivating and it literally seems never-ending. But it’s when “UK Lollipop” hits where everyone should realize LUCI is meant for greater things. There are moments of UK Trip-Hop that linger beneath the surface, here it becomes much more obvious without overpowering. Incorporated within are semblances psych-rock cooings that allows LUCI the option to move beyond her own vision. This song is massive, a beast of a track meant for mass consumption on multiple levels. The EP closes with “STOP PLAYIN,” which opens with LUCI’s self-realized vocals over African-centric percussion, which is layered through most of the song, offering a unique juxtaposition with layered melodies throughout. It’s both majestic and grounded at the same time.
Does Juvenilia honestly need further explanation? As soon as you hit the play button it becomes clear that this debut sets the bar, not for any assumed competition but for herself. Is this the greatest release of 2022? Quite possibly.