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Web metrics probably aren’t the most important thing to Paperhaus, given that the D.C. band was formed and nurtured in the now-legendary Petworth DIY house/show space of the same name. But here’s a number that can’t be ignored: As of the end of September, the Soundcloud page for its seven-minute single “Go Cozy” had registered more than 5 million plays.
The track got a big bump from a July feature in Billboard, but its modest virality speaks to something broader: For a patently indie band draped in art-pop, krautrock, and post-punk, the future is bending perceptibly toward breezier pleasures. “Go Cozy,” which deftly hops across all those genres, is hardly the only uber-listenable song on Paperhaus’ new album, Are These The Questions That We Need To Ask? Founder/frontman Alex Tebeleff and his bandmates retain their usual sincerity, but they’re more attuned to showing some heart.
It’s not pleasure just for pleasure’s sake, though. The layers of inquiry in the album’s title ripple underneath all eight songs, which take glimpses of doubt and frame them with optimism and, on occasion, a little showmanship. When Tebeleff asks, “Can you believe the times we’re livin’ in?/ How can we get through it?” at the outset of “Nanana,” he hardly sounds defeated or bummed. When the “na na na” chorus kicks in, it’s more like a fight song for the DIY nation—imagine Radiohead’s “Airbag” as a jock jam.
There’s genuine dread elsewhere, but Paperhaus couches it: Album opener “Told You What To Say,” which muses about the basics of authoritarianism, has an unsettling keyboard riff and a portentous bassline, but there’s melodic glimmer to spare. The synth-heavy monster mash “Walk Through The Woods” shows its paranoid side immediately—there are no surprises here, except maybe the saxophone—but the song exits with a moody sound collage. The whole thing is overcooked, but it’s more theatrical than flat-out pretentious.
Elsewhere, Paperhaus takes interpersonal tensions and purposefully inflates the music around them. “It’s Not There” (a quote-unquote love song with DNA borrowed in equal parts from J. Robbins and Echo & the Bunnymen) and “Serentine” (a too-serious pop track nearly saved by sneaky Talking Heads-style polyrhythms) each strive to transcend whatever human complications might be at the core of the lyrics.
Sometimes pure momentum does the job: “Needle Song” has slippery and cavernous elements, as if Paperhaus is careening around some urban nowhere, but the high-BPM rhythm is nonetheless perfectly danceable. And album closer “Bismillah”—the only slow-building track here—eventually diffuses its abstract metaphysics with a surging, guitar-heavy coda.
Above all else, Paperhaus gives obsessive attention to the sonic details. Are These The Questions That We Need To Ask?—recorded with Peter Larkin at his Alexandria studio, The Lighthouse, and released through Pittsburgh’s Misra Records—has nary a snare hit or an echo effect out of place. Consider the breakdown about halfway through “Go Cozy.” Space opens in the mix. Handclaps announce that things have taken a turn. Bass thumps and synth squiggles compete for attention. When the main guitar motif kicks in, it resonates with confidence.
Those kinds of sonic entrances and exits are a bit of a local signature, from The Dismemberment Plan’s classics, to Beauty Pill’s Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are, to whatever smart things The Caribbean cooks up regularly. It’s not the sound of the city, per se, but it’s a very D.C. kind of intelligence. In Paperhaus’ case—especially with the band’s house-show venue recently moved to a new location— the smarts come with an obvious desire to connect, and connect well.