Photo Credit: COIN via Facebook
While the pandemic was a time of pause and reflection for most musicians, it marked the most productive moment for Tennessee-based COIN, which has released a steady stream of music across the last two years. Now, on their third album, the band who broke out in 2016 with the song “Talk Too Much”, attempts to reconcile conflicting desires: escapism and grounded reflection. On Uncanny Valley, the band proves far better at the former than the latter.
Uncanny Valley is at its best when the stakes are low and the mood is light. The best track here, “Chapstick” is borderline nonsensical (“She’s a friend of mine, and an apple pie // And a sharpshooter, I’m in overtime”) but benefits from a retro Britpop sound that makes the ridiculousness of it all sound charming, and it does a remarkable job at re-creating the euphoric highs of ’90s Britpop. “Cutie”, meanwhile, manages to pack in even more head-scratching lyrics but packs in enough killer hooks and an anthemic chorus that makes its shortcomings seem beside the point.
COIN trips up when trying to confront heavier themes. The opener “Learning” tries to make a statement about humanity in the technology age but ultimately retreads old ground. “I’m more than zeros and ones,” declares lead vocalist Chase Lawrence, over a monotonous layer of autotune seemingly intended to contrast authenticity and digital distortion. It’s an admirable attempt, but it’s hard not to compare it to those who have done it better – like St. Vincent, who made a similar declaration on 2014’s “Huey Newton” (“Entombed in the land of zeros and ones”) but did so over much heavier distortion and guitar, making her message sound genuinely frightening, rather than insipid as it does here.
“Blackbox” similarly attempts to deliver a message of sincerity and authenticity, but trips over itself even more frequently, giving way to a seemingly endless tirade of cliches that ultimately culminates in a cry of “It’s the real-life me.” “Take The Stairs” is similarly hamfisted – with Lawrence delivering lines like “If the lift is broke, take the stairs,” without a hint of irony – but has the sort-of stomping chorus that makes its faults seem secondary. Uncanny Valley then, if far from the comprehensive statement of the modern age it seeks to be, is an album that in its best moments perfects the pop formula so well, that all its faults suddenly seem unimportant.
With all due respect, I think this review is dead wrong in many respects.
I think this is not only the absolute best album COIN has ever produced, but one of if not the best indie albums I’ve listened to in the past few years. Better than anything Hippo Campus, Wolf Alice or the Killers.
First listen, I think I would have agreed with some of the statements. It’s not their fresh, summer vibe. It’s stylized way different than their past albums – from auto tuned ‘Learning’ to harsh, grindy ’watering a dead flower’. Of course Cutie and Chapstick are super catchy and high-energy like past songs, but the album as a whole is very different – a little unnerving, yet still very enjoyable. Yet a lot of the lyrics and sentiments are hardly new and groundbreaking.
But the more I listened to it, the higher this album climbed in my music library. I enjoyed more and more songs (I listen to whole albums instead of playlists to try to feel the vibe of the album, if that makes sense), and one’s I didn’t particularly enjoy at first, like Take a Picture and Watering a Dead Flower, I became to really vibe with. The disarming, fittingly uncanny sounds they made became more than just the sound of an album, but related deeply to the lyrics and real life. Kind of confused by this transformation, I decided to look a bit deeper into what the album meant as a whole. And that’s when I feel in love.
Having said that, sounds like a cheesy ad or something. But seriously, this album is an absolute masterpiece. Chase Lawrence mentions in some interviews that he and the band struggled a lot during the pandemic (surprise surprise, I know), so they just began pumping out song after song, writing hundreds of songs that year just so that they could have something they could have control over (these songs were put on their rainbow mixtape EPs). Chase talks about how he struggled at this time finding who he was creatively, and who he and the band were. He talks about how they had always tried to put out music that the audiences would connect with – not a bad thing, but his “well of creativity was dried up” from approaching music that way.
When meeting up with producer Julian Bunetta who worked with them on their fourth album, he brought up a documentary he and the band had seen, can’t remember the name, about how an AI had beaten world record holders for some game, I think it was Go. They talked about the relationship between AI and humans, and how eerie it was. They started talking about what it would be like to be an AI trying to understand what it would be like to be human. This theme showed a lot about what it meant to be human, and the human experience. He expresses this in ‘Learning’ when he sings ‘there is no algorithm for intuition; you just know.’ (An absolutely beautiful line.)
During his struggles to express himself and create real music (compounded by the epidemic), he realized that he forgot that music wasn’t just about giving people music they could connect to, he later explained, it’s about being authentic to yourself (hope that doesn’t come off patronizing, I have no idea how music making works lol) and your experiences. And in exploring what an AI would feel when trying to understand humanity, Lawrence learned to express his own troubles and human emotions, through his music.
The whole album reflects this so powerfully and beautifully. The album isn’t just about AI and sci fi and stuff. It’s a beautiful expression of what it means to be human, and the experiences we face, through the view of something that cannot experience that. I think it’s more than that, too. I think we try to be what we aren’t, we try to be perfect or right or anything more than imperfect but emotional humans, which leaves that sense of uncannyness that we feel when a robot is almost human but not. And in Loving, the beautiful epilogue to the album, he tells us through some of the most authentic lyrics ever written:
“But I wanna feel what’s real
I’m taking a ride to the back of my mind
I wanna taste my tеars
I’m living a life, but something isn’t working out.”
That’s so powerful to me honestly. Trying to feel and live as himself but not always being able to. I feel like that chorus of that finale is such an honest expression of Chase Lawrence and who he is, and what probably all of us struggle with in some way. Trying to feel what’s real, not the fake or the uncanny. That deep self expression is the definition of music and art. I’ve never found an album ever – or never understood one on this level – that has so beautifully crafted on so many levels human emotion. I said I believe this to be the greatest album written in the last few years, and I wasn’t being dramatic. Chase Lawrence and the rest of COIN are only incredible songwriters and genuine expressionists – they are some of the most authentic, human, and artistic musicians I’ve ever learned of. They’ve not only created this masterpiece, but honestly helped me understand a lot about what it means to be human, what it means to be me. That is true art.
Of course a lot of what I’ve said is subjective to how it’s helped me specifically, but I don’t think that’s accidental. I sincerely believe that it’s due to the incredible musicality and deep levels of irony and themes that permeate the album. Sure, plenty of the lyrics are ‘recycled’ or others nonsensical. That’s part of the message of what it means to be human and authentic. The lack of unique and groundbreaking lyrics in Learning is intentional, done to further show that true human emotion ISNT repetitive and recycled. It’s new and unique and authentic.
I rest my case (or rant, that’s probably more accurate lol)