Cutler Station’s ‘I Wanna Build A New Machine’ is a ‘memento mori’ – if you want to get all fancy about it

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – While many of us were having a continuous freakout over the past three years, Appalachian indie rockers Cutler Station were busy making a record. They decided to call that record I Wanna Build a New Machine.

Is it an indie rock record pulling double duty as a memento mori? Well, maybe – if you want to get all fancy about it.

It’s also a lean, mean, fiercely sophisticated 39 minutes that veers stylistically from boogie-fied psychedelic pop to oddball electrified folk – all while never hesitating to rock out.

An illustration of a woman with a sweater with a cat on it sitting on a porch with a skeleton who has its hand on her knee.

The title track softly rambles the album to life with the delicate moan of pedal steel, building up to a blissed out, XTC-like loping guitar riff underlined by a bed of growing distortion. It’s a very pretty song about the very ugly subject of humanity’s apathy towards itself – something we’ve all been slapped in the face with at some point over the past few years.

Remember when everyone was comparing the present to George Orwell’s 1984?

Oh, wait! They still are!

Big Brother’s Little Sister is a playful take on this ever-present mindset, set to the crunch and ricochet of guitar.

Big brothers are loud and strong and you always know where they are. Little sisters don’t have to be any of those things. The Sally Browns of the world with their Zen-like ability to evaluate situations (and how said situations are undervaluing them) don’t even need to ask for the things they want; they take them and usually people don’t notice until they’re long gone.

Big Brother was once a big eye in the sky. His Little Sister and contemporary counterpart? She’s small, novel, and always at hand.

The album’s centerpiece: One Piece Bikini Parts 1+ 2

I Wanna Build a New Machine, as whole, is about post-covid humanity. However, the mid album duo of Indefinfinity (One Piece Bikini Part 1) and Things Ain’t What They Seem (One Piece Bikini Part Two) paint a particularly poignant picture of the collective struggle of the past three years and the two very distinct ways we reacted to it.

Part 1 turns inward, delving straight into the deep dark depths of self-loathing. The song’s refrain – “everyone’s changed but me,” feels a little close for comfort; what more accurate way to express that nauseating realization that while you’re struggling to adapt, everyone else seems to be straight up transforming?

Over gliding slide guitar anchored (as always) by drummer Jason Swiger; a sense of melancholy erupts.

Part 2 frantically turns outward. Maybe it’s not you – maybe it’s them!

It feels like an emotional indulgence at first – a fantasy over a bed of fuzz that builds to a steady stream of conspiratorial thinking. But is it so conspiratorial to entertain the fundamental questioning of power at the heart of the song?

What do we come to Cutler Station for? Character songs, that’s what!

Cutler Station has always excelled at portraits of people we probably don’t know, but often feel like we could. Songs like Southeast Ohio Speedster off the band’s 2019 self-titled record or Midwest Moms or AutoZone Parking Lot Kids on Meat, No Sides are good examples.

I Wanna Build a New Machine features two such songs. First the chronically unbothered Keith, then the chronically bothered Carol of Carol Smokes.

Keith opens wooly and sweet like a hymn on Sunday morning: “Everybody’s freakin’ about the end of the world/but not Keith.”

Supposedly apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love. Keith is apathetic, true, but the complicated part is that he’s also clearly surviving a whole lot better than his friends who are “burning out in the street.”

Carol Smokes is kind of the record’s unofficial title track: its central character seems to be the star of Chris DeMaria’s artwork for the album. 

Carol just wasn’t made for these times, and how many of us really were?

Appalachian gothic?

It’s difficult to mistake Cutler Station’s sound for anyone else’s.

They do, however, “have a lot in common” with ‘90s Tennessee intellectual alternative rockers The Judybats. The parallel is particularly clear when it comes to songs like Carol Smokes.

Both bands are creative mutations, generations on, of the midcentury hybridization of “good times music” and psychedelia – plus the ever-present resonance of Bob Dylan’s redefinition of what a pop song can be expected to do. Importantly, both excel at cultivating compassion for tropes that often don’t get any.

Carol is tragic just like the characters in Judybats songs like Daylight, Ugly On the Outside, Pain Makes You Beautiful, An Intense Beige, or Down In the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow are tragic.

The dark humor, alienation, and often unexpected sense of empathy we get in these songs feels somehow “Southern gothic” – and maybe in this case “Appalachian gothic”?

A digital paradise 

The album ends with Return of the Cannibals, a suitably sinister title for a track both bouncy and crystalline. What starts out as a chorus about a “digital paradise” shifts to a chorus about a “consuming parasite,” which seems about right.

Synthesizers and punctuating guitar fold out over expertly controlled percussion throughout the song – this is what electrified folk rock can be in 2023!

A new machine and the same old problem

All-in-all I Wanna Build a New Machine is the strongest work yet from a group that has persisted through the ever-changing currents of the regional scene. “Thematically” (and isn’t it cringey when we talk about rock music that way?) it’s about the sense of change most people have longed for for as long as there have been ways to record such longing.

When it comes down to it – everything always changes. Tempus fugit – time flees.

One thing stays the same: we’re born and we die. Maybe we don’t even need to get fancy about it, maybe this record is a memento mori no matter how you dice it.

“I Wanna Build a New Machine” comes out July 31. It was mixed by Wayne Graham (this is the name of a band, not a person) and in particular by producer/engineer Kenny Miles of Fat Baby Studios.

Purchase a special “beer yellow” vinyl variant via the Heady Wax Fiends Record Club, a subscription-based record club that presses and circulates regional music run by Mid-Ohio Valley local Erik Meyers. Pre-order standard vinyl through the group’s bandcamp page – 200 are available. Find the record in Marietta at Monster’s Horde: Records, Toys and More and Clutch Collective; in Parkersburg at Sound Exchange; or in Athens at Republic of Athens Records
Catch Cutler Station July 31 at Monster’s Horde for an album release show at 6:30 p.m. The band is also slated to perform at the Huntington Music and Arts Festival Sock Hop August 31 at the Huntington Roll-A-Rama Skate Center.
Keep tabs on Cutler Station via their Facebook and Instagram.