There are a lot of Bay Area rock bands that I am digging right now, but my favorite local release of the year is Developer by Social Studies, hands down. Of course, I’m biased. My label released it. But we don’t really release “rock” records all that often, so what is it about this band and this amazing album that compelled us to step outside our comfort zone on this? Social Studies’ first album, 2010’s Wind Up Wooden Heart was all twisty and turny, a proggy affair that was somehow catchy even as it threw verse-chorus-verse structures in the trash. It was the closest thing we’d ever released to the old post-hardcore bands I used to play in, and without feeling retro it still reminded me of the mid-90s, when you could go see the Aislers Set, A Minor Forest, the VSS, and Cars Get Crushed play the same show at the Kilowatt or the Chameleon (editor’s note for kids not yet collecting social security: yes the Kilowatt used to have shows, and the Chameleon cleaned up a bunch and is Amnesia now).
But for Developer, Social Studies worked with producer/engineer Eli Crews (Deerhoof, Thao & Mirah, tUnE-yArDs) and totally streamlined their songwriting. They have verses and choruses now. Lead vocalist Natalia Rogovin really challenged herself, dropping her register an octave, and the guitars came front and center. The record sounds live, and it pulses with, for lack of a better word, power. It’s huge. I could hear it from the first rough mixes that I heard way back in the spring, and it just built and built. I’m old and jaded so when I hear a record that gives me spine tingles I stop what I’m doing and turn up the volume.
People struggle to describe the album, comparing it to Beach House, Metric, or even Florence + The Machine. But I think they’re missing the point. It’s not hazy or fuzzy at all. It’s not really dream pop. The lyrics are multi-layered and yet totally direct; there is no opacity for it’s own sake. And in a town full of bands with gimmicks, Social Studies have just their songs ….. and when you hear them, you know they have nothing more to prove to anyone. Developer is a record that is clear-eyed and full of purpose, moving, and thoroughly modern.
Paul Koehler is co-owner of Oakland’s Antenna Farm Records.
Paul pictured with Antenna Farm co-owner Jill Karjian