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As far as overeducated Bethesda kids go, Jeremy Joseph is a fine, fine rocker. It’s obvious now that he was merely showin’ off a couple of years ago when he released his debut EP as Daddy Lion—its surplus of good taste covered for its mild shortage of emotional risk. Joseph rebalanced that situation for his full-length followup, Habitat, which finds a lot of tension between heavy thoughts and worldly moments. And he can still write a hook, too.
Most important, Joseph has zeroed in on a style: Where the EP tried out a variety of indie-rock moves, Habitat seems to pull the bulk of its sonics from a decaying VHS tape of Dave Kendall-era 120 Minutes—it’s got more strum than fuzz, more midrange than bass, enough synths to please a Brit, and vocals that are a little bit Joy Division and a little bit Hüsker Dü. The 28-year-old plays and sings everything himself, recording it bedroom-style.
There’s a cohesive theme, too. “The struggle of human spirituality in the face of accelerating techno-scientific progress,” is the way the University of South Carolina grad student phrased it in a recent email—but you could also call it “identity versus the big bad world.” And it sounds like those thoughts sometimes keep him up at night. The unease is often clearly spelled out, as in the album’s bookends—opener “The Scientist’s Lament” (i.e., what’s it all mean?) and closer “No Solution But Resolution” (i.e., we brought it all on ourselves)—songs where Joseph gives off strong whiffs of state-school twang amid the Bunnymen/Lemon Drops seriousness.
But he’s capable of being more visceral with his vocals, especially when borrowing some familiar imagery. “Werewolf” is one of those classically catchy songs about self-loathing (“I’ll slip into the crease/Yeah, I’ll be down around your knees”), and the discomfort is heightened by the fact that Joseph’s vocals borrow from the Brits without going for the full depressive deadpan. Likewise, “Survivor’s Guilt,” which might be about more than one kind of holocaust, ends with Joseph screaming, “What’s the matter with you, What’s the matter with me, Shut my eyes, I still see,” as if it’s 1988 and hardcore is giving up the ghost right in front of his face.
Those are all interesting choices for a guy whose initial public offerings were so readily embraceable. Here he never puts the listener at arm’s length, but he’s also intentionally icy and thorny at times. Come to think of it, that’s what made “college rock” so identifiable more than two decades ago: It sounded like smart guys made it, and even though they wanted you right there, listening intently, they didn’t want you to get too comfortable, either.