Remember those frantic, chirpy sounds that old 8-bit video games used to make? Did you know there’s a pop subgenre inspired by those sounds? Wait, don’t run away. Chiptune, as this style is called, doesn’t have to be awful; it just needs to be in the hands of a band like Crying.
While they were in college in Purchase, N.Y. in 2013, singer Elaiza Santos got together with guitarist and synth-programmer Ryan Galloway and drummer Nick Corbo. Besides the 8-bit sound effects, their influences were electronic pop and other sounds of the ʼ70s and ʼ80s, with a touch of punk and grunge thrown in. But chiptune was a consistent style underlying all their early songs.
I’ll throw you into the deep end. Here’s “Bodega Run,” from the 2013 EP Get Olde, an ode to going to the convenience store that might also be a love song in disguise. Brace for impact:
Once the nerves in your teeth adjust to that freaky, squeaky sound, you notice the odd production balance: Why don’t they turn up the voice? The obvious assumption is that these young kids didn’t know how to produce a record. But Santos’ thin voice drowning in the swirl of electronica is a signature feature of every Crying song; most significantly, it remained that way when Get Olde was remastered rereleased with added tracks by the indie record company Run for Cover in 2014 as Get Olde Second Wind.
Seeing that much consistency, I believe it becomes our job as listeners to figure out why this is the case. It strikes me as an indie statement. Isn’t obfuscating the voice, which in standard pop music is blasted out at godlike proportions, kind of a middle finger to industry expectations? It also allows for some appropriate millennial symbolism, given that their whole lives have been an avalanche of electronics. And they grew up knowing that, if you need to know the lyrics to a song, you can Google that. Hey, the record company even pastes the lyrics under each video on YouTube.
While it still uses the chiptune sound, “Rat Baby” is more tuneful. I like the sardonic humor in the lyrics (which I read online, of course) about the painful decisions we face when cleaning out junk from past phases of our lives: “Living in the same boxes of hand-me-downs is getting old, plus you’re chubbier now little girl.” But there’s philosophy hidden behind those toe-tapping bleeps and bloops: “Where’s the formula for separating waste from what can remain?”
The song “ES” provides a glimmer of proof that there’s more to this band than Super Mario fluff. The usual electronic busy-ness runs upstream against a genuinely lyrical melody and thoughtful poetry by Santos about defining herself: “I’m frightened more than usual, lately. I do not translate into ‘one of the boys’ ‘lotus flower’ or ‘chinita.’”
2016 brought Crying a new drummer, Kynwyn Sterling, and the band’s first full-length album, Beyond the Fleeting Gates. Plus there’s a lot more experimenting with other musical styles than on the previous EPs. In “Premonitory Dream,” the wobbly Casio tones of the intro open up into some grungy guitar licks for a change. It’s also helpful to have Audiotree Live videos of the band performing the songs. Santos has a soulful presence that does not come across in her voice alone.
The most surprising track on Beyond the Fleeting Gates is “Wool in the Wash.” What, no chiptune? And notice how the sustained notes in the voice — reminiscent of The Cranberries or riot grrrl bands of the ʼ90s (and yes, that’s ancient history to these musicians) – blends with a 70s light rock sound in the drumming and the gently distorted guitar chords in the chorus. More of this weird combo, please!
In current America, no artists scoping out the landscape for stylistic influences can avoid rap for long. Sure enough, the tell-tale half-spoken rhythms show up in “There Was a Door,” but only in the verses. Rap blends well with a chiptune underpinning (subtler than usual), which makes sense; both styles are more about rhythm than melody.
I have to wonder, what’s next for Crying? What other genres will they use to flavor their songs? Here’s hoping for a jazz element in a future song.
But maybe the more interesting question is, what follows chiptune? There must be representative sounds in 2017 that will seem retro and cool to the college music-makers of 2047. We just can’t hear them while they surround us.