Published Jul 23, 2020Skullcrusher's eponymous debut EP spotlights Helen Ballentine's natural talent as a singer-songwriter, even though the four-song sequence often comes across as emulative, work that that may have benefited from a more thorough recasting of obvious influences.
The EP opens with "Places/Plans," featuring a hook-y melody and mercurial vocals reminiscent of Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy, among others. The track captures a particular uncertainty, the palpable tension of having creative aspirations yet "no plans for tomorrow." Sonically, Ballentine's strummy acoustic guitar blends effectively with collaborator Noah Weinman's droning synth part, conjuring some of the austere soundscapes of early Bright Eyes.
"Trace" shows Ballentine moving in a pop direction, bringing to mind Waxahatchee's Ivy Tripp or Out in the Storm. An ebullient melody and slacker lyrics ("Wasting another day / Trying to ignore my face") are complemented by Weinman's jangly banjo part, resulting in a lo-fi/alt-Americana vibe. "Two Weeks in December," a promising but abruptly truncated sketch about meeting a stranger and waking "alone in a frozen broken home," may strike some listeners as an angsty riff on the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood."
"Day of Show," despite its allusion to the performative life, occurs as a portrait of someone struggling with depression or attempting to navigate isolation during the COVID-19 era: "I've been searching for an hour in my closet / Trying to figure out what to wear / For a day I'll spend alone in my room." The instrumental segment toward the end of the song, replete with guitar, bass, drums, and synths, is notably well-textured.
Skullcrusher's debut points to Helen Ballentine's undeniable skills, particularly as a melodist. A bit more distancing from popular templates, however, may have served to further distinguish her work from that of her abovementioned contemporaries. Hopefully, subsequent releases will flesh out and affirm Ballentine's potential, offering the listener a more sustained and varied experience. (Secretly Canadian)