w/ Jenny Besetzt
A Little Hello is an apt title for Mol Sullivan’s new EP, since it serves primarily as an introduction. Though she has been one of the Cincinnati music scene’s best kept secrets since the early 2010s, this is her first proper studio release. The opener and title track is an appropriate how-do-you-do: a plucky piano-driven tune about taking a chance on love, with playful flutters of country guitar, some Feist-like bounce, and lithe, McCartney-esque melodicism. A major surprise, though, comes in the form of an introspective bridge that reminiscences on past romantic dysfunction: “Tornadoes, what I was used to/But I never felt the breeze.” The contrast between sections makes the song a perfect microcosm of Sullivan’s songwriting style, mixing levity and a lust for life with a hard-won knowledge of the weight of the world.
For Sullivan, releasing A Little Hello feels a bit like purging the archives, since it is peppered with songs that remind her of times she might like to leave in the past. Many of the compositions are between four to seven years old, written on either side of a difficult transition to sobriety, one which frequently left her relationship to a music career—and even music at all—in question. In its finished version, though, A Little Hello still sounds vital, and doesn’t play like a grabbag compilation; it tells a sonically and narratively coherent story in its own right. Unlike Sullivan’s previous release (2013’s lo-fi compendium Winter ‘13), A Little Hello’s pop-minded production sparkles in headphones or on a nice pair of speakers—bright, lush, heavily layered.
These sleek recordings, like the songs themselves, often took years to find their form. In the midst of a battle with alcoholism, Sullivan began to self-produce a record with collaborator Alessandro Corona . After Sullivan got sober and the two moved in together, her songwriting process grew and changed in reaction to hard-earned life lessons. Channeling early heroes like Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple, putting down the guitar and getting behind the keyboard became the most effective and radically honest way of channeling her emotions. As she learned the instrument, she began to explore the extremities of her vocal range and, in her own words, “howl a bit.”
The process yielded the most trenchant and heartbreaking songs on A Little Hello—no-holds-barred open letters to a love interest who seems incapable of writing back. “Bury the Hatchet” cuts to the thematic heart of the EP with its pithy requests for transparency from an avoidant partner: “How can I grind this axe?/Can we talk?/Do I gotta ask?” One of the project’s groovier tracks, “Frontrunner,” revolves around a circular, mathy beat that mimics the hamster wheel of unanswerable questions Sullivan seems to be stuck in: “Was it a fling? Was it a front?/Was I a placeholder?”
When considered in relation to couplets like these, the title A Little Hello assumes a deeper significance: These songs strive to open up lines of communication. How else, Sullivan asks, can we hope to navigate the minefield of intimacy and mutual support? She is content to pose—or howl—the questions, and let us find the answers by looking back on our own misadventures in searching for ourselves in the eyes of others. Though it represents just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to music that Sullivan is preparing to unleash on the world, A Little Hello is an arresting opening salvo—the type of greeting that is guaranteed to start a longer conversation.
Jenny Besetzt does not shy away from a cathartic release. Just listen to the title tracks from their two full-length records—Only and Tender Madness—and it’s clear that the lean economy of their post-punk underpinnings is bursting with a poignant vulnerability. Maybe it’s the history of Romanticism encoded in vocalist John Wollaber’s DNA—he was born in Germany to an opera singer—that explains the band’s affinity to soften the sharper edges of their sound with cavernous vocals and dreamy synth arrangements.
Live the band has honed their ability to shatter an audience with a devastating turn of phrase or instrumental climax, creating space for vocalist John Wollaber’s thundering voice to resonate. The rhythm section of bassist Nathan Price and drummer Thomas McNeely pushes and pulls with serpentine momentum through the delicate currents of Sara Bell’s synthesizers. And their ability to convey the frustrations of trying to understand ourselves and the world around us has never hit harder. As the world continues to search for answers to the confusing and uncertain times in which we live, Jenny Besetzt takes us on a much-needed trip inwards—a path they walk with both vigor and grace.