No matter how many return projects fall flat, one thing is certain: musical genius doesn’t just fade. Kanye West’s lesser projects (if there are such things) are not worse than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy because he lost his ability to produce. Each project is going to have strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes even Gods mess up.
It’s this simple fact that keeps me excited for releases like Sweet Trip’s newest A Tiny House. Sure, the band hasn’t released a studio album in over a decade. Sure, it’s hard to be consistently inventive with electronica in the year 2021. And sure, relevant, IDM-infused titles aren’t easy to come by. But underneath every reason to doubt Sweet Trip’s continued production is a reason to be excited for it. And even though it struggles to develop steady pacing or a singular identity, A Tiny House is a bundle of near perfect sound design and a 90s’ underground revival.
Sweet Trip are no strangers to roaring album starts—2003’s Velocity : Design : Comfort led with the electrifying “Tekka” followed by the sugary sweet “Dsco”—but A Tiny House‘s first six tracks already reign supreme amongst the group’s discography. “Tiny House” coincidentally accomplishes what both of these aforementioned tracks already did: it introduces you to a world of glitchy matrices, and shows you it isn’t all that bad. Through constantly-shifting vocal samples and smooth, spacy synths, Sweet Trip combine their IDM sensibilities inside of their indie pop hit, rather than split them apart, creating something bigger than either could be individually.
“Surviving A Smile” is then, “Dsco” part two. Ushering us into a beautiful digital world, Sweet Trip’s trademark shoegaze joins up with groovy solos from early 90s synth pop into something both calming and grandiose. Lyrics rarely take the forefront of Sweet Trip’s projects, but the echoed “survive” brings such a rush of positive energy, at times, it feels like the main focus.
After we’re reintroduced to the old Sweet Trip, the record does its best to develop a unified sound throughout the next few tracks. The group is more subdued across “The Weight of Comfort,” and “In Sound, We Found Each Other,” opting for traditional, acoustic instrumentation alongside dreamy electronic sidekicks. However, the few daring decisions they do implement keep things engaging—and at times mind-blowing. Thunderous percussion highlights the latter half of “The Weight of Comfort,” sounding closer to 80s power pop than anything else, and the multiple glitchy renditions of “In Sound’s” melody save it from falling into a dull pothole.
“Chapters” and “Eave Foolery” round out the solid front of the record with more influences of IDM, trip hop, and even early 90s Canadian indie. The intimate acoustic strumming on “Chapters” is reminiscent of groups like Jale and Eric’s Trip, but it quickly evolves into insane IDM stuntwork, bringing together both the extremes of the 90s’ underground scenes. It’s as if the Sub Pop label in 1993 was transported through the computers of Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Portishead, until something equally trippy and indie came out.
These somewhat-consistent ideas begin to seem like the crux of the record, but “Snow Purple Treasures” is the turning point. I do my best to avoid terms like “frontloaded”—so as to not undermine the lesser songs’ thematic importance—but the latter half of A Tiny House is why the word exists. After the blitz of six-to-seven minute epics, the record is full of unnecessary diversions that halt most of its developmental progress. Track times half, and it begins to sound like interlude central.
Luckily, the tracks themselves don’t lose their overall quality. “Zafire Melts” is two quick, beautiful minutes of guitar strumming and glittery electronica. “Randfilt” acts as their true homage to Autechre and others, with a trippy alien jam that could find itself atop of some of the 90s’ IDM greats. And by the end—”At Last a Truth That is Real”—things get back on track.
The slow-building finale to A Tiny House draws even more 90s comparisons. Beneath the intense layers of sound, Sweet Trip bring back the echoing percussion and spacy environment for a Mogwai-worthy ending. It’s surprisingly one-dimensional for its effectiveness, relying on a single, rising melody to carry the track to its conclusion, but the deep instrumental lineup and cloudy production raise it far past its baseline.
Though the finale makes for a great send-off, it’s hard for A Tiny House to shed its lackluster center. What harms this project the most is simply song organization. Out of the fourteen total tracks, seven feel genuinely worthwhile, while the other seven are sputtered on its way to the end. The reasoning is uncertain. There isn’t some grand thematic development across the shorter songs, nor is there a lot of emotional building. Each one is fine on its own, but when following the extremely detailed, complex sound design of the bigger, greater tracks, they lose their own identity and importance. Much of this album could be found on a top ten Sweet Trips song list, but the rest could help fill out the bottom ten. And it’s the second side that is holding this record back as one of music’s finest.