Terrible Sons

facebook.png (923 b) instagram.png (923 b) youtube.png (923 b) soundcloud.png (923 b) bandcamp.png (923 b)

It’s easy to stay insular when your home is not only on an island, but cast in such idyllic light, an almost arcadian realm in the eyes of the world. Certainly, these terms may apply to the life that Terrible Sons has built for themselves. Husband and wife duo Matt and Lauren Barus work and live with their two children in an intentional community near Christchurch, New Zealand. And while the music they’ve made in the past has reflected the intimate and bucolic warmth that wraps around their family, Terrible Sons has never shied away from revealing the more vulnerable feelings that define us all — heartbreak, loneliness, exhaustion. But beyond these formative emotions exists a collective experience, one that Terrible Sons boldly tapped into on their forthcoming EP, Mass (February 2021).

It’s clear from the record’s start that some kind of evolution has taken place, but in more ways than one, Mass marks a new path for Matt and Lauren. Lyrically, the two venture into unfamiliar territory, taking cues from folk tradition by singing their own version of a protest song on “The World is Walking Over Us.” “We don’t want to see ourselves as people who look at our own little issues under a microscope,” says Matt. “Part of the reason we called it ‘Mass’ is because we want to be connected to what’s happening, we want to be writing about what we see in the world, and we’ve never really done that before.” Issues of inequality and political strife stand as contextual pillars, but are always balanced with thoughtful introspection, and it is that pendulum that swings between the internal and external that so beautifully drives the entire EP.

But while Mass clearly establishes a stronger connection between Terrible Sons and the world at large, it also signifies a more connected writing partnership between Matt and Lauren. Lauren notes that, “This EP is the first one where we made a really conscious choice to bring each other into our own writing processes earlier on, which is a more vulnerable place to be but it gives the other person more ability to participate in the narrative.

 The result is a more cohesive and full sound, as is reflected in the production too. Working with producer Tom Healy (Tiny Ruins), Lauren recounts that he “often acted as that person that brought our two ideas together and helped them sound unified.”

From the outset, it is the production and instrumentation that differentiates Mass from the rest of the Terrible Sons catalog. Working with Healey and bandmates Joe Barus (Matt’s brother) on bass and Joe McCullum on drums, the recording process took place entirely at the Barus home, which allowed the group the time and space to get it right. The payoff is a tightly crafted sound, backed by an almost palpable kinship amongst the band. Sonically, Healey took the organic, analog, and acoustic sounds Terrible Sons are known for, and warped them to a perfect degree of idiosyncrasy — harmonies were played in reverse and stacked, brass and organ made appearances, and layers of percussion were added for a louder, more dynamic rhythmic texture. It’s unexpected from a duo that has kept production minimal in favor of highlighting the vocals and songwriting. But it never overwhelms, it only guides listeners along the new path Terrible Sons has forged and provides a highly distinct foundation for Matt and Lauren’s more united voice. With concise and intentional subtleties woven throughout, the ear never wonders where it should go, it just knows there is something interesting at play.

Mass kicks off with “Love Will Make Fools,” a pulsing guitar and drum-driven tune that sets the percussive tone for the rest of the EP. It also proves that something can be both intimate and have a bit of volume, a duality that reappears throughout the record. “What a Friend” follows and paints a deep welling sadness, but then, like a lot of what Terrible Sons does, it comes up for air transforming into something else — a signal to keep the faith, even in life’s darker moments. Matt says, “It’s about failing your friend when they need help,” but notes that, “with our music we always want to lean into something of hope.”

Halfway through, “The World is Walking Over Us” lands with a fuller sound, a call to action in a time when the divide between rich and poor is getting wider and wider. Punctuated with trumpet, and a marching beat mirrored by the guitar and piano, Matt and Lauren’s voices come together with an almost simmering strength, a frustration transformed into song. But its energy is like a precursor to the infectious groove found in “You Are the Gold,” which leans most heavily into Matt and Lauren’s pop roots. With lyrics like, “baby I can’t find my treasure, maybe my treasure rests in you, you are the gold that I want,” it contains the emotional weight of a love song with the energy of a dance track. The standout electric guitar, which is rare for Terrible Sons, brings a shimmering magnetic quality as the piano riff carries through to the end.

“Streets of New Love” starts the downward slope of the EP’s climactic arc, and it’s really where Matt and Lauren’s voices shine. There is a gentle kind of elasticity, as if their harmonies are purely flowing alongside whichever notes are being plucked. This effortlessness is no doubt a byproduct of having sung together for so many years, but it also speaks to the deep respect that they have for one another as songwriters. Lauren says that the song is really about “trying to articulate the moment when you feel the intensity of an ember, the newness of love.” But she notes that there’s also a “fragility to that feeling of going into this magical space, of really wanting it.” But in totally unexpected fashion, the song ends on a jazzy, almost lo-fi trip-hop piano riff that brings a bit of edge to a vulnerable place. It is a fitting way to transition into Mass’s final chapter, the EP’s moodiest by far. “No Sleep” feels weighted, and it should, considering its backbone is the wheezing of an old, thrifted, colossal pump organ that was gifted to Lauren. If “mass” were to be embodied, it may very well be in this instrument that provides the backdrop to a song about never being able to rest in our hectic, ever-humming world.

The production of Mass is no doubt one of its most recognizable features, but the EP’s amped up quality never comes at the expense of the band’s most well-honed quality: their honesty. It’s something they set out to imbue from the beginning of Terrible Sons, and it’s continued to be a defining trait in Matt and Lauren’s songwriting. Mass was made in true collaborative spirit, between friends and family, and it comes at a time when collectivity has never been more relevant. At its core, Mass is about resilience, about making your voice heard, even if it seems the world isn’t listening.


IMC Features:

February 27, 2023: Asperatus