Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Monroe Moon Build a Sultry Atmosphere and Paint a Night-Time Scene in ‘Smoked a Cigarette Instead’

There is a particular pleasure in seeing a band do something new with confidence and genuine pleasure, and with their recent releases Monroe Moon have been doing exactly that. 

The American duo have made a name for themselves as purveyors of dreamy indie pop, slow and airy compositions which feel light and full of room to breathe; so it is especially interesting now to see them take what is almost an U-turn into a much darker, much thicker rock sound, filled with dirty guitars and summoning a completely different kind of atmosphere: sultrier, sharper, more confrontational. 

And yet the unexpected curveball feels right: there is nothing tentative about their latest single, ‘Smoked a Cigarette Instead’, a three-minute vignette which goes straight to the point, confident in its voice and in what it is trying to do. 

What it is trying to do, most of all, is paint a scene: aided by lyrics that border on poetry - this has always been a Monroe Moon signature move - the song feels intensely visual, and it is easy to imagine a street at night, two people parting ways, a woman pushing her hands deeper into her pockets as she turns her back on someone she, at some point, cared about.

The words go a long way in building the atmosphere of the track, but they do not achieve this goal on their own. There is a remarkable self-awareness of sound in a song that, short as it is, cannot waste a single bar, and doesn’t: everything here serves a purpose. The guitars dominate the track throughout, slow and almost ominous at first, building in intensity as the scene unfolds. 

There is an ebb and flow to the rhythm of the song that is supported by the steady pace of the drums, and a touch of keyboard where it is most needed which is subtly unsettling in the best of ways. There is, lastly, something almost bluesy in the way that the track is constructed, even if the end result doesn’t sound like blues at all: it’s the themes and the structure, rather than the voice, which carries some relationship with the classic blues ballads. Dominating it all, though, are the vocals: Bunny Monroe’s distinctive voice fits this kind of track in a way that it perhaps never fully did the broader indie sound, and the contrast with the rough edge of the guitars truly makes it shine. There is a sultriness to the end result, but also a quiet contemplation and a touch of melancholy; the song, and the image it depicts, feel lived and palpable. Part of the credit for this goes also to the production, which manages to leave a smokiness of sorts especially around the way the guitars sound, contributing greatly to the track’s personality: and personality is everything for music like this, which takes the storyteller’s approach to rock.

It would be a temptation for a rock song this short to just throw a punch, but ‘Smoked a Cigarette Instead’, in its quiet confidence, never allows itself any outbursts. It evokes its scene, expertly, lingers just as long as it needs to on the details: “Tip your hat/ Kiss my head/ It’s a poem in your pocket/ Smoked a cigarette instead” read the lyrics, a series of precise licks of paint composing an image that lingers a bit longer after the last few chords. The resulting voice is, at least in mood, something related to The Black Angels or even Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, but with something eerie under the grungy guitar sound that might have something to do with folk or even gothy Americana. It is a perfect treat for when the sun goes down, an occasion to linger at the edges of a scene and let a truly entrancing voice draw you in.

Chiara Strazzulla


Image: ‘Smoked a Cigarette Instead’ Official Single Cover

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