The music of Jonnine Standish is not exactly sunny. As a member of the duo HTRK (pronounced "Hate Rock"), she and Nigel Yang have made a career out of somber, brooding, skeletal rock songs that often deal with grief and loss. Neither one is stranger to such things—in 2009, producer Rowland S. Howard died shortly after producing their debut album, Marry Me Tonight. The next year, their bassist Sean Stewart committed suicide. The two friends forged ahead anyway, defying odds that would've rent most groups apart. And although the music has gotten a little sunnier over time, their lyrics have always borne the stain of tragedy.
Against this backdrop comes Jonnine Standish's new solo material. Per her therapist's advice, Standish recently embarked on a solo career, beginning with 2019's Super Natural, her first EP. Just four tracks long, the EP showcased everything Jonnine did well—woozy acoustics, plucked stand-up bass, and rich, poetic lyricism. The songs had a ghostly, foreboding aura, even darker than most of HTRK's work. This aura carries over to Jonnine's first full-length album, Blue Hills, out via Boomkat Editions this year. But the LP's a bit of a conundrum—the music is gloomy and arcane, but the lyrics speak of birds, blue hills, springtime, and the seaside. The album has an eye-of-the-storm feel. It's like that picture-perfect moment when you're lounging on the beach, the sun beating down, the tide rolling in, and then you hear a crack of thunder from somewhere behind you.
Take the title track, "Blue Hills". In a lazy, half-awake drawl, Jonnine sings, "You're the best thing I've had / Because you want everything that I have / And when the birds sing/ they sing just for you / They don't care much for spring / They just care what you bring." Behind such vernal lyrics, however, the music is anything but springtime, with an eerie, almost sickly-sounding pan flute playing over the drums and bass. A similar thing happens on "I Chase You Like Light on a Sundial". Here, Jonnine repeats the song title's summery mantra to a backdrop of wavy synths, Roland beats, and crisp, steely bass. At the end, a sinister sax lick swoops in, adding richness and depth to one of the LP's sparsest pieces. These songs exemplify one of the album's central motifs—sunny lyrics and gloomy instrumentation. It's a contrast that works wonders here.
The strongest track on Blue Hills is probably "Can You Get Me There". The song opens with a slow, lurching bass groove that calls to mind Angelo Badalamenti's main theme for David Lynch's Twin Peaks. That is no surprise, of course. Jonnine is a noted Lynch fan and has cited his movies as inspiration for her music. "Can You Get Me There" would fit right in in a Lynch film. The song has it all—eerie synths, skittering snare drums, mumble-sung vocals, and a motif of high-pitched, siren-like wails that sound like they're coming from an electric wind instrument. It's probably the most haunting piece in any HTRK-related project to date. Just like a David Lynch film, it's ghostly, evocative, and summery all at once.
The album comes full circle on the last song, "Let The Waves Roll", which features most of the same instrumentals from "Can You Get Me There". Here, though, the bass is slowed down, and the vocals are louder and more fully-formed. Jonnine sings, "Give me honesty / With the violence at sea / Let the waves roll, the waves roll, the waves roll." The lyrics read like a reckoning with the album's darkness, a plea for the narrator's inner demons to show themselves. And in a musical career fraught with the demons of grief and loss, this plea seems all the more powerful.
Nowadays, there are hundreds of artists out there going for the same aesthetic Jonnine goes for here—the dreamy synths, the half-whispered vocals, the Lynchian soundscapes. But what sets Jonnine apart is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears. No doubt, she's lived the gloominess and mournfulness of the music here, but that's part of why she offers such catharsis. Blue Hills is her most powerful statement yet, a collection of threadbare, half-awake pop songs that feels handmade for the AM hours. It's ghostly and foreboding, but deeply intimate. It's the sound of an artist who has been in the eye of the storm and found a way to contain the pain.