Pretty Bitter’s beginnings could easily form the basis of the next indie movie starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Florence Pugh. An artistic soul adrift in the metropolitan multitude of our nation’s capital, songwriter Emelia “Em” Bleker connected with Miriam “Miri” Tyler on Twitter in 2017 – and a creative union was forged. It turned out, Tyler enjoyed writing songs for another voice to sing, and Bleker wanted to be that voice. Over the years, the project evolved from Nah. to Pretty Bitter – which is a fairly natural progression, really.
The band released their debut album, Patchwork, in 2019 along with a handful of well-received singles, including the lyrically raw “Fractal” and the indie bop “Play Nice.” Along the way, they performed with more established acts like The Ophelias and Sunflower Bean and developed a respectable following in the Washington, D.C. area.
Bleker and Tyler were poised to really break out of their respective shells and begin recording their second album when, as was the case for so many artists, the pandemic stalled their momentum. Luckily, they picked right back up again and 2022 will see the release of their sophomore effort, Hinges.
While Patchwork was more of an indie pop album, Hinges ventures ever deeper into synth pop territory. But who needs clichéd genre names? “Pretty Bitter is a psychedelic synth pop gumball machine,” the band proclaims in their bio, “Pretty Bitter is the new queer Richard Linklater movie you’ve never heard of.” Upon listening to the album several times, I’d say it’s a pretty darn accurate assessment, oddly enough.
Bleker and Tyler are joined on the album by fellow D.C.-area greats multi-instrumentalist Zack Be, an artist in his own right, guitarist Chris Smith, and drummer Jason Hayes. The result is the ten-track masterpiece Hinges, which is sure to launch the band skyward into more mainstream spheres.
Lead single and album opener “She’s Pure Astral Light (or so she says)” is a five-minute colossus of a song, the sinuous bendy bassline of which is sure to lodge itself firmly in your cerebral cortex with its hooks. Delicate electronic twinkles are expertly layered with distorted guitar riffs and pleasantly humming synths to a swoony effect throughout the song, at times giving way to ethereal keys and softly screaming guitar breakdowns.
Bleker, meanwhile, showcases the band’s characteristic quirky-but-relatable lyrics, presenting a list of scenarios that are somehow profound while at the same time do not quite add up. “You stopped hanging out at the park when Mary told you it was cursed, but I never got it, you like ghosts,” she sings, adding, “Amy told you that she’s a healer when on a one-week retreat and won’t stop telling me that I need to smoke more weed; the worst part is that maybe she’s right, but her mom pays her rent and I don’t have the time.”
“Go, if you want to,” she sings on the soaring chorus, “You can go, no one’s gonna stop you.” There’s a special place in my heart for the punch-packing sing-song admission: “I’m meeting with all contingencies; it’s becoming clear they want nothing to do with me.” As the song ends, her vocals fade away as if carried aloft on a breeze. The song is an instant hit, and the words “banger” and “earworm” spring to mind when describing it.
Listen to “She’s Pure Astral Light (or so she says):”
“The Damn Thing is Cursed” opens with a study in palm-muted ‘90s guitar and ghostly backing vocals before Bleker asks, “If I grew two faces how could I still be sure they were the ones you were always looking for?” The drums pick up as the song builds and a descending keyboard series joins the fray while the guitar gets progressively louder. The involved bassline, meanwhile, makes itself subtly known without dominating the song.
In the catchy chorus, Bleker expresses her resignation in a few liberating proclamations: “I wanna leave the door wide open but I know I don’t care what you say to your friends when I wasn’t around” and “I hope you love yourself for who you are when nobody’s around.” In the musical breakdown of the song’s latter half, the guitar veers into some very grunge-oriented chord progressions and the drums assert themselves in a big way to fantastic effect.
With its prominent bassline and Andy Summers-esque guitar riff, “Fashionable Exit” emanates a strong Police vibe at first. Bleker’s delicate voice is accompanied by multiple backing vocal tracks that float in and out of the sonic ether as she quests for constancy. “Nothing ever worked the way you wanted when you started out,” she sings in the chorus, “you only needed something to be true.” At the midway point, the band demonstrates how tight they are as musicians with several start-stops, false endings, and tempo changes. Smith wails on the guitar while Hayes shows off some serious drumming chops to take the song out.
The layered keyboard and synth intro of “BeesWax” quickly morphs into shoegazey guitars and an eccentric drum loop that powers the song like an irregular heartbeat. “You can’t stay here,” laments a more despondent Bleker over a buzzy backdrop that befits the song’s title. A few bees soon turns into a swarm with synths, distortion, and volume all at a cathartic maximum – dropping only to showcase Bleker’s spoken-word delivery of several thought-provoking lines, including, “You are not a wound or a festival/you are neither and nothing in between/but it is a ribbon and not a noose today/they see it, too/you are together, and you are wrapping presents.” The song itself is not unlike a present with many layers and components packaged together, waiting to be unwrapped with repeat listens.
The second single, “Final Girl,” is kind of like a synth pop murder ballad – or an attempted murder ballad if you will – as it is narrated by the survivor. “You’ll be the final girl, you’ve got the jawline,” Bleker sings through an echo as if taunting us. There’s something vaguely ominous about the musical tone of the song – best described as “noir surf rock” – that is emphasized by the dark turn the lyrics immediately take. Lines like “You better start locking your window, he’s acting strange and getting too comfortable” and the repeatedly crooned “you survive” further cultivate this unsettling feeling.
Bleker then takes aim at toxic celebrity culture with hard-hitting lines like, “Can’t help but worship the drama; T.V. people won’t leave your front yard” and “the movie’s over but they won’t let you leave it.” We’re left feeling like the final girl could be the prettier one he ends up with, the last victim running into the woods in a classic B-horror film – or the girl playing that girl in the movie. It should definitely become the conversation-piece thinker song on everyone’s summer playlist.
Listen to “Final Girl:”
“Trust Fall” opens with a flurry of sounds reminiscent of an alien spaceship firing up before giving way to chalky piano notes and Bleker’s moody vocals. “I’m nobody’s daughter,” she sings, “and you found me out too early, baby.” Slightly dissonant and uncomfortable piano keeps us on our toes at the midpoint and supports the song’s uneasy exploration of intimacy anxiety. The distant backing vocals almost make this into a duet of sorts. Bleker leaves us with a dichotomy that plagues us all: “You never told me; I always wondered if that’s because it mattered too much or not enough.”
“BDI-Lore” is a beautiful anthemic song that accurately chronicles the internal struggle those suffering from depression and mental illness experience. Strings and distorted piano form the backbone of a complex soundscape that builds to incorporate angelic backing vocals, tasteful cowbell hits, and a hooky bassline. Bleker is at her most lyrically vulnerable here, delivering lines through a slight effect: “If I gave you a cruel hypothetical, I don’t want to make it clinical; I was happy with you, friend. Would it be fair if still sometimes you love me? I’m the ace of my family tree; it scares me, just.” Verses like this possess a peculiar beauty and stick with the mind that takes the time to listen to them.
The chorus – in which Bleker gives us lines like “wanted to be how you first saw me, honestly,” and “wanted to be well, the first time you touched me” – is a genuine and relatable portrayal of mental illness in relationships. Bleker also explores the internal relationship with herself: “I’m not an oracle, but the illness makes her prophecies; she doesn’t have to love me to tell me what she sees,” she sings, “who in the world could love me? Didn’t think I’d live to 20.” Later in the song, she appears to put herself through the song’s namesake Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), assessing her own depression in a spoken word recital of numbered behavioral symptoms that ends with “2, I would like to kill myself, 2, I cry all the time now.” It’s a journey from start to finish and paints one of the most intimate portraits of depression that I’ve ever seen. This song is a gift.
“[Redacted] Dies at the End,” in addition to winning song title of the year, appears to be closer to an actual murder ballad – albeit an indie folk one. It is an acoustic song with the spirit of a demo, complete with creaks and other ambient background noises. “Break into your childhood home,” Bleker sings, “the man living there bought it with cash and he let the weeds grow.” It’s a playful song with some lyrically heavy themes that may or may not include homicide. The folk vibe is enhanced by a fiddle and banjo breakdown culminating in the repeated line, “making dinner for a man you know will soon be dead, oh well.” It’s always a pleasure when Be breaks out his banjo.
At over 10 minutes long, the penultimate “Numb it Down for Me” is an absolute epic. The party starts with simple piano and droney, bendy, reverby guitar. A stuttery drum beat soon joins in, and Bleker then greets us with the line, “Break in the doorway, it’ll kill you on a good day.” Here, she “leaves the door wide open,” repeatedly pleading, “I want you to know me, feel me.” Halfway through, the song devolves into a purely instrumental affair as if the mind governing it has dissociated. Slowed-down piano notes drift amid strobes of deep noises, choral elements, heavy buzz, and distant wailing vocals. Astonishingly, the song reinvents itself a third time as a slick ‘80s-style groove complete with frantic drumming and, somehow, after everything, ends with growly synths.
Album closer “What Now” is a short, simple song with subdued bass, drums, and piano that give the layered vocals the limelight. Bleker sings a series of frank admissions such as “I can’t start anything because I’m not perfect in the beginning” and “I’m looking into medium readings, the good ones are $1,000, to talk to my dead father and my cat for just a minute.” After a brief moment of vibrant piano, it all ends with an obvious but still perfectly astute observation: “why do we travel to go home again?”
Hinges is an appropriate name for this album, as doors come up a lot in its lyrics. There are, of course, multiple meanings for hinges, those movable joints upon which doors, jaws, and plans swing. It’s also possible to become unhinged. I’m banking on the fact that Pretty Bitter wants you to pull from all possible definitions when considering their album, which tackles such big topics as mental illness, childhood trauma, body dysmorphia, toxic celebrity culture, and intimacy anxiety.
“We started to look inwards at our traumas and our identities,” Bleker explains, “And really how our entire lives were creating the people we were presenting to be to the world.” I suppose this is a way of saying that one’s outlook and behavior *hinges* upon their experiences.
Pretty Bitter displays a high level of finessed musicianship beyond their years as a band, likely in no small part due to Be’s masterful composition and arrangement of all instrumental aspects of the album. Hayes’s drumming also adds a lot to the experience, as does Smith’s superb guitar work. And, of course, Bleker and Tyler are a solid songwriting duo, with Bleker’s voice bringing their visions to life.
It all comes together in this marvel of an album, which takes us from synth pop to grunge to indie folk to shoegaze and back again in its ten songs. In the band’s own words, “Pretty Bitter is the last night of July and there’s fireworks and you’re screaming happy at the sky and blissful glitter is spilling as you’re making out in the backseat on a long, long drive.” Having listened, I can honestly say that I feel that. The truly shocking part is that this is only their second record. Get to know Pretty Bitter now because they won’t stay obscure for long!
Hinges is out 6/24 via Blössom Records.
Fans of The Beths, Hop Along, Japanese Breakfast, Big Thief, Great Grandpa, Freelance Whales, and Sylvan Esso should give this one a listen!
If you’re on the East Coast, catch Pretty Bitter in concert!
July 1, 2022 – Comet Ping Pong – Washington, D.C. (record release show with Scorpio and Carmen Canedo)
July 3, 2022 – Pie Shop – Washington, D.C. (with The Zells and Moon By Moon)
August 5, 2022 – DC9 Nightclub – Washington, D.C. (with Bad Bad Hats and Gully Boys)