In the video for “Yellow Spiders”–the opening song on Courtship Ritual’s debut album, Pith–flowers expand to bloom in slow motion, perfectly matching Monica Salazar’s vocals in timing and clarity. The scene is haunting; flora pulled from their indigenous habitats and put on display in front of a stark black background. It feels simultaneously sexual and monstrous, flowers opening and closing to the sliding, off-kilter beat of the track, bursting with explosive climactic synergy and making a show of the flowers’ jaw-like petals. Many times, a music video feels less like a complement to the track it’s supposed to visualize and more like random images montaged together to a set soundtrack, but in the case of “Yellow Spiders”, the video accurately captures the subtle, sinister beauty of both the track itself and Pith as a whole.
Without getting too particular about Courtship Ritual’s appellation choices, the Oxford English Dictionary defines pith (n.) as “The innermost or central part of a thing; the essential or vital part; the spirit or essence; the core, the nub.” With Pith, the Brooklyn-based duo deliver on their denotative promise, providing an album that gets to the essence of the dream pop aesthetic (without ripping off Beach House): bare-boned electronic drums, insect-like basslines and scuttling guitar parts, and synchronously hook-laden and ethereal vocals. Songs range from trance-inducing pop tracks stripped bare by Jared Olmsted’s bouncing, syncopated bass parts (“Yellow Spiders”) to dancefloor breakdowns reminiscent of early DFA artists (the second half of “Kingdom of Beauty”).
A few of the tracks don’t appear for the first time on Pith–“Six Foot Summer” and “Yellow Spiders” were a part of the 2014 GODMODE compilation Common Interests Were Not Enough To Keep Us Together, and an early version of “Wild Like Us” was released as a single in 2013. That song has since been re-recorded and polished off via GODMODE founder Nick Sylvester’s clean-cut production, honing in on the track’s Cocteau Twins-esque clarity. The same can be said for the rest of the album: each instrument–as well as Salazar’s slicing vocals–can be distinctly heard; there’s no ambiguity in instrumentation by any means.
Lyrically, the album deals with notions of beauty, loss, and love, all through a slippery, sardonic filter. “You’re drowning in the water, ha/Nobody here to sail,” Salazar sings on “Ancient Drip”. “These days I remember oh so well.” Between the ironic enunciation of “ha” and the duality of meaning contained in the word “well,” Courtship Ritual make it clear that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Over the elastic guitar that grounds “Champagne Cages”, Salazar apostrophizes to a character named “M”, a woman Salazar claims has “Hollywood rest[ing] on that chest.” There’s the blatant objectification here, the way “that” is used instead of “your,” despite the speaker directly addressing “M” in the song. In this case, it’s meant to be sarcastic, pointing out problematic tropes and expectations, a turn-around of the classic male-narrated account of the lost woman in need of guidance. Courtship Ritual doesn’t give a shit about musical or lyrical tropes, and Pith is a corroboration of that.
The only questionable choices on the album are its short interludes. Never exceeding 40 seconds (with “Kingdom Intro” edging its way in at 14 seconds), they seem to be sketches of ideas rather than musical palate cleansers or true introductions to their subsequent songs. But despite this and the album’s relatively short runtime–27 minutes–Pith is a complete and coherent statement from a band deconstructing what it means to be making pop music in the age of the post-genre.
“I learned my lesson/I swear, I swear, I learned my lesson again,” Salazar admits on “Six Foot Summer”, the album’s closing track. She’s speaking through us in this case; Pith is glinting and resplendent in its stark originality and staunch deconstructionist intent. And Courtship Ritual has certainly taught us a lesson, that dream pop isn’t just Cocteau Twins or Beach House, that even in 2014 original music can still be made from familiar components.