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Goth Lipstick Returns with “formless, shapeless”

There’s no doubting the fact that Goth Lipstick—the eclectic duo helmed by frontwoman Francesca Fey and her creative partner Paperface—is one of the most exciting acts in the underground DIY pop scene. Last year their debut album, crystalline corset—a trans feminist coming of age album inspired by characters from Francesca’s favorite anime and Ghibli films—found its way onto several “Best of the Year” lists on Bandcamp. 

Now, with their sophomore LP formless, shapeless, Goth Lipstick has adopted a much more raw, textured, and haunting sound that hearkens back to the ghostly dance pop of Farrah Abraham’s My Teenage Dream Ended, while staying true to their semi-fictional introspective roots. The production takes cues from SOPHIE’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, clipping’s Visions of Bodies Being Burned, and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. The album is narrated in the style of the Japanese Isekai literary genre–which revolves around characters being transported to a fantasy world–to tell the story of two wraiths on the run together who are forced to survive in a parallel universe.

“After being first exposed to [Isekai] in anime, I have been spellbound by the idea of resurrection in a new world.” Francesca tells me. “The genre was the perfect way for me to reflect on what it means to be a young trans woman growing up with a vision of what an ideal existence could look like as well as on the struggles I have faced personally that have shaped my [own concept of identity].”

The titular track, “formless, shapeless,” opens with a whirring drone that is promptly followed by glitching percussion and a succession of computer-blip effects that lay a sturdy foundation for the track with repeated chants of “I wanna be your love, I wanna be your love,” and paradisiacal background vocals from her girlfriend Gwendolyn.

The following track, “wraiths awake,” is an anthemic wakeup call from the previous track’s dream sequence, with blasting candy-coated synths and head-banging percussion plucked straight from the PC Music handbook. Fey delivers the line “If you wanna find the way to my heart/Then buying me a dress is the place you wanna start,” with so much conviction before letting out a blood-curdling scream of “WAKE UP!” 

“Identity thief” opens with one of the nastiest, coarsest, and bombastic basslines I’ve ever heard, which rears its head at ongoing intervals throughout the song as Francesca professes in her whispery cadence, “I feel something when you sculpt me/Shapeshifting into anything/Skin like water, body of ice/When I’m someone else, there’s a place I can hide.” These specific lyrics highlight the malleability and plasticity of an unfixed identity, a philosophy that Francesca’s hero SOHPIE has also preached on songs like “Faceshopping” and “Immaterial.” 

The fourth track is a cover of the 1975’s saccharine tale of chemical romance, “Chocolate.” It is an excellent reimagining of the original work. The engaging production begins with computerized synth blips that gradually build to a climax with distorted basslines, faded background screams, and glitching android sounds, making for a much more experimental reinterpretation of the song that is far more interesting than the original.

“I wanted to write a song about [two wraiths] getting super high together and falling in love, but the only way I could truly represent that kind of experience was with a song written by people who had been through it themselves,” Francesca says before going on to say, “a good cover should stand alone from the original, and the best way for me to achieve that was to completely reimagine everything from the ground up, distorted synths, wild vocal effects, and all.”

This is quickly followed by “fangs,” a sinister rumination on recklessness and self-destruction. It’s a whirlwind of unpredictability with masochistic lyrics (“Love is grip that squeezes me like a tourniquet/Take a whip to my hands leaving marks on my wrists”), complemented by sporadic blasts of glitching machines, which are guaranteed to catch every listener off guard in the best way, making it impossible to resist the urge to violently thrash your body along to the song.

“[That song] started when YouTube recommended a video [to me] about songs composed in extremely fast tempos, and that inspired me to write these quick, glitchy drum patterns that play throughout the track,” Francesca tells me.

The penultimate track, “faceless, nameless” opens with high, fuzzy guitar overdrive that hearkens back to My Bloody Valentine in their prime—specifically “When You Sleep” off the group’s iconic 1991 album Loveless—before climaxing in a crashing, grandiose solo and closing with cinematic piano keys. The abstract lyrics and the tinkering percussive droplets over the piano at the end transition into the final track, a brief love song entitled “forever,” which is forty seconds of utter silence that hearkens back to John Cage’s 4’33.

“John Cage actually went to my college! He might have subconsciously influenced that track, but it has a completely different intention than “4’33.” The main inspiration comes from my difficulty with writing love songs,” Francesca says. She then goes on to say that her aim with the track was to write “a song that quite literally can be performed for a lover regardless of how physically far away anyone in the partnership may be, [no matter] what technology or instruments are available, or even if anyone in the partnership is alive or dead. To me, it is the ultimate love song.”

What makes the silence at the end so profound is that it leaves the listener with a pang of bittersweetness, but plenty of space to breathe. It’s the perfect ending to the harrowing, heavenly whirlwind that the album takes the listener on. It’s our favorite slice-of-life movies with a mystical twist.  

Score: 10/10

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Current Obsession: French Vanilla – “How Am I Not Myself?”

After being inside for 371 days and counting, something I’ve been incredibly grateful for is being able sit down and voraciously consume as much new music as humanly possible. And one of the most valuable discoveries I’ve made has to be the radical and forward-thinking Los Angeles queer art punk quartet, French Vanilla. CLRVNT has described French Vanilla as a group “that takes a dissonant, politically-minded approach to no wave that hearkens back to the genre’s glory days; think Bush Tetras after a weekend of binge-reading Audre Lorde and taking saxophone lessons.”

French Vanilla began making waves on the L.A. DIY punk scene when they released their self-titled debut album in 2017, and have since toured with the likes of Girlpool, ESG, and Cherry Glazerr.

French Vanilla’s sophomore album, How Am I Not Myself?, was released in 2019 and produced by Sean Cook, who also produced and engineered St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION. The album combines infectious guitar and sax leads with idiosyncratic rhythm sections and a radical political literacy that is not too dissimilar from their Washington, DC contemporaries, Priests. The group does a sublime job of combining jittery post punk vocal stylings and instrumentals a-la Essential Logic and Suburban Lawns, with politically-conscious writing and outrageous performance art similar to ’80s queercore artists like Vaginal Davis.

With the whirling vocals of frontwoman Sally Spitz, and playing that juggles the sonic energies of new wave and minimalist art punk, the band sounds like the love child of the B-52s, Le Tigre, and Bush Tetras. Combining a danceable, saxophone-laden groove with feminist nursery rhymes, How Am I Not Myself? both revels in absurdity and interrogates the heterosexist power structures in an oppressively patriarchal society.

The song “Bromosapien,” finds Spitz flaunting her signature caterwauling against Daniel Trautfield’s crisp saxophone leads, with lyrics that rail against misogynistic institutions that strip away the autonomy of young women and girls (“How do I know you are sexist?/Because you’re ego is so delicate”). The instrumentation on “Lost Power,” draws contagiously twangy leads from lead guitarist Ali Day, while Spitz unpacks the paranoia and sense of lost identity that comes with being in a visibly heteronormative relationship (“All night I think I’m sick/Losing color and I’m falling quick”).

“All the Time,” boasts bouncing, brassy instrumentals that stand in stark contrast to the serious lyrical subject matter. Spitz’s robotic vocal stylings hearken back to early DEVO records, while the lyrics find the song’s narrator fighting for self-actualization through the act of attempting to please others, whether it be potential lovers, friends, clients, or families (“Oh, I wanted you to see, you to see/Everything that we could be, we could be”).

On “Joan of Marc by Marc,” the band does their best Josef K impression with rapidly jangling instrumentals. The narrator of the song feels corrupted by their unrelenting libido as they find themselves in a tug-of-war between their attraction to men and women, while simultaneously struggling to fight off the heteronormative dogma that forces women into subordinate roles in heterosexual relationships (“I gag on the ordinary”).

Writing songs about the intersection of the personal and the political in a way that makes listeners want to burst out dancing is never an easy task. French Vanilla’s How Am I Not Myself strikes the perfect balance between seriousness and whimsical satire with relentless energy, textures, and bright color palettes.

Score: 8.5/10