Athens, GA continues to be a hub of brilliant, catchy indie pop. Every year, I feel like I hear another record that restores my faith in modern songwriters to craft enchanting melodies. And when I look for where the band or artist calls home, it’s usually Athens. Andy Gonzales, the mastermind behind Marshmallow Coast, has been diligently working to bring us quirky pop records since the mid-90s. He was a part of Julian Koster’s The Music Tapes, and was also a member of Of Montreal during the project’s early days. Now on its 11th full -length record, Gonzales’ own Marshmallow Coast has not lost any of its pop sensibility. Memory Girl is a masterpiece of songwriting and production.
On first listen, Memory Girl sounds something like the distant cousin of McCartney II. It is a cascade of oddball synth landscapes and melodies dripping with Beatles-esque charm. Many electronic or synth-based records have the tendency to sound rather cold, distant, and unfeeling. But, Memory Girl sounds warm, present, and refreshing. And in the same spirit as the quirky “Temporary Secretary,” the lyrics on Memory Girl are full of zombies, ghosts, and stabs at romance.
Opener “Warm Bodies” captures the mood and tone of the entire record perfectly. It’s a mid-tempo, dreamy ballad, with lyrics questioning the validity of true love after death. Gonzales sings, “Forever has meaning / so long as I’m breathing/ I love you forever / I know it’s not clever.” Along with the repeated refrain of “warm bodies in motion,” Gonzales is popping the big question: will we stay in love after we die? It’s a charming song, and a unique, fresh take on the phrase “undying love.”
“Take You On” is an endearing number about meeting and falling in love with the perfect person. In the second verse, Gonzales sings, “I could make out with anyone / but it wouldn’t be the same / and I don’t know who to blame.” Gonzales manages to capture the terror and the excitement that happens all at once when you meet someone new. And the production mimics the mood of these lyrics. Just before the chorus, there is an angular, jagged guitar line that inhabits the same space as a beautiful, keyboard lead. It’s moments like this that really prove Gonzales’ status as a pop genius.
“Lover’s Leap” might just be the catchiest song on this record. Kicking off with a bass and drum groove, the song eventually comes into it’s own when a slinky, suspicious guitar line snakes into the mix. During the middle of the song, there’s also an incredible guitar lead line. It sounds maniacal, fuzzed out with minor arpeggios. The lyrics echo the theme of the terror of true love. Gonzales says, “In the night while they sleep / we’ll go down lover’s leap / we’ll go down to the deep / I’m afraid what we’ve done / I’m afraid you’re the one.” This song might be the ultimate song exploring the strangeness of budding romance and intimacy. The lyrics find their home inside Gonzales’ haunting-yet-catchy musical landscape.
“K. Freeman Enslaved” is the oddest song on the record, and maybe the most obvious song about zombies. Right off the bat, the song is frantic. The beat is full of upbeat for this record, and the guitar tone is harsh and brittle. It’s a wake up call from the dreamy production on the opening songs of this record. The lyrics are out there, even compared to some of the other strange one we’ve heard so far. Gonzales says, “I do not mind the big machines / strapped to my back / sucking out all of my blood / I am here / Ken Freeman enslaved.” Based on this lyric, it sounds like the main character is making the transition from life to death. Halfway through the song, there are several people making howling sounds. Later on, Gonzales sings, “Here is a very good place to be / if you don’t mind the stench / The walking corpses can be good company.” It’s just a very creepy song. But, it’s full of beautiful melodies despite its freaky images.
“Sinz Of My Father” is groovy and danceable. It almost sounds like Bowie’s “Fame” had a child with any song off of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Complete with vocoder and pulsating filtered synthesizers, “Sinz of My Father” is perfect for a pajama dance party around 3 AM while the rest of the neighborhood sleeps. It’s a lighthearted, feel-good song on a very moody record.
The Beatles are often talked about when discussing pop music and melodies. How quickly we forget that 80s bands like Hall & Oates, Tears for Fears, and The Police were all concocting melodies that we would sing in the shower for generations to come. The electric piano on “Shooting Star” is lifted straight out of the ‘80s; it’s staccato chords bearing an unmistakable resemblance to singles like “Promised You A Miracle” or “What A Fool Believes.” And yet, the melody is reminiscent of the weird, otherworldly melodies of Elephant 6 bands like Of Montreal and The Gerbils. The slide guitar lead that comes in after the first verse sounds heavenly amidst the electronic percussion and piano.
“Foxy Boy,” with its tambourine and auxiliary percussion, almost sounds like a forgotten funk single. The groove is undeniably inspired by the Detroit collective, and could almost serve as a Diana Ross backing track. The group harmonies singing “Foxy boy” throughout the song also hearken back to the Motown era. This song helps to continue the mood created by the rest of the record, and sets the stage for the album’s end.
And finally, “Memory Girl” is an ambient, sleepy, and perfect close to this bizarre collection of pop songs. Once again, we are greeted by a warm, ‘80s electric piano and soft, electronic percussion. As the song gains momentum, snare drum rolls and swelling synths accompany Gonzales’ soft falsetto. Gonzales has saved the best for last, giving us a swan song about beauty, love, and the afterlife. He sings, “I want to look into your eyes and die / my memory girl.” It’s touching and tragic, which sums up this record nicely. It’s incredible when a writer can use the simplicity of pop melodies and combine them with such a cinematic concept like “zombies.” With the swirling keyboards and creepy lyrics, Memory Girl is a truly original work of independent pop.
I think artists using synthesizers and electronic drums have their work cut out for them. It’s so easy for the production on electronic records to sound compressed to hell and back. However, Gonzales and company have managed to make a record that sounds just as warm as ‘70s Neil Young records despite the electronic instrumentation. It’s a testament to a mind that takes influence from all over the musical spectrum. Memory Girl is like a patchwork quilt, taking the best musical trends from the past five or six decades and weaving them all together. If you’re looking for an enchanting record for late night dance parties, look no further than this latest release from Marshmallow Coast, out now on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records.
Pick up a copy of Memory Girl here.