One of the best albums to come out of Portland in 2017 was Turtlenecked’s Vulture, a collection of 10 ragged art-rock songs powered largely by the electric guitar and Harrison Smith’s emotionally raw howls and yelps.
Buried near the record’s end is “Tummy,” a track that runs nearly seven minutes and works within a more beat- and synth-driven palette. It stands out among its surroundings, not only for its sonic aesthetic, but also because it feels more composed and fully formed than much of the rest of the album.
Turns out “Tummy” also acts as a precursor for High Scores of the Heart, Turtlenecked’s excellent new EP, out now on Good Cheer Records. Its eight tracks are moodier, more relaxed, and more polished than those on Vulture, and they’re built principally out of drum machines and synths.
Opening track “Knocked Down by Another Ghost” is a curveball: a prickly post-punk burner leavened with a pop chorus and echoes of Blink-182 in the breakdown. (Let’s not pretend like that’s a bad thing.) From there, though, Smith goes full emo-disco, first on the gorgeous and shadowy young love anthem “Underwear” and then for “Milkmaids,” which discovers drama in the intersection of bleep-bloops and its staticky rock crescendo.
The peak of High Scores is “To-Day,” which somehow brings together a Communist motto, a four-on-the-floor dance beat, a barbed guitar solo, and lush vocal harmonies within three thrilling minutes. “Breathless, I connect the dots in my checkbook like an alien,” Smith sings. In his half-snarl, half-falsetto, this sounds like radical wisdom from a not-so-distant future.
Smith sticks with his new direction almost to the end of the EP. “Friends, Romans, Countryboyz” drapes a big beat with a shower of sparkling synth tones, and “Centrefold” reaches so far into an ’80s vibe, it borders on parody. “Let Me Know” is Turtlenecked’s frustrated take on a sultry R&B jam: “I can be your dog/ I can bring a leash,” Smith sings. “You can pull it tight ’til I’m blue.”
Smith bookends High Scores with “Christmas Songs,” a strummy hum-along number that proves he hasn’t lost his knack for the Weezeresque pop-rock that courses through Vulture. As “Tummy” foretold High Scores, perhaps “Christmas Songs” will do the same for whatever Smith does next. And that’s exciting—he certainly seems to have the ability to choose whatever path he pleases and then to see it through.