Published Oct 14, 2020If success in art is measured, not by any academic rubric, but by the universal resonance of a deeply individualistic and personal, often wrenching-to-produce piece of work — and I would wager it is — then Strangers Like Us is perfection. With this album, Mav Karlo offers up an instant classic of an album, studded through and through with gems. With the album's soft sound and incisive lyrics, Mav Karlo will make you feel less lonely.
Mav Karlo, with its fodder-for-folklore beginnings, is the solo project of former Hollerado frontman Menno Versteeg. While the project's Reno Tapes from earlier this year was a pared down and meandering EP, Strangers Like Us, Mav Karlo's debut full-length album, is brassier, with catchy choruses that'll stay with you for days. Katy Goodman (of Vivian Girls) provides backing vocals, and her voice is an interesting complement to Versteeg's, adding delicate texture as it beautifully echoes choruses and carries melodies. Dizzy's Charlie Spencer is on keyboard and drums (and it shows, in a good way), and ex-Hollerado bandmate Nixon Boyd is on guitar and bass. Chris Coady (Beach House, Grizzly Bear) produced the album.
Versteeg's voice has always been distinct. Here, however, it's honeyed and soothing, inquisitive sometimes as it negotiates with an unseen force. He has always excelled as a lyricist and storyteller. On Strangers Like Us, his words steal the show on track after track — from the heartbreakingly nostalgic romp through Honest Ed's that is "Dig a Hole" ("Dust-covered clues to the tastebuds of simpler days" is the most perfect thing I've heard all year) to the anthemic, plaintive cry of "Treasure" and the grittiness of "Detonator" ("So embarrassed by my behaviour I had to pretend not to care").
There's nothing overwrought about this album; it's simple and safe, and this is why it's so effective. It makes no grandiose claims. The words focus on deeply idiosyncratic and lonely impressions, on microcosms gravitating around and within Versteeg, but they tap into something so deeply human that you see yourself in Versteeg's place. The tracks are like parables that, while telling Versteeg's stories, serve in turn as advice and as cautionary tales to listeners. Mourning a city lost, hoping for a safe individual and collective future, hoping for a stable mind, for bravery, the album speaks to a desire we all have: to be okay. He tells gritty stories — sometimes with a wily sense of humour, other times with grim realness — of a life deeply felt. And these stories are couched in a sound that isn't overbearing and that never overshadows Versteeg's or Goodman's voices — all components intersect stunningly. (Hats off to Coady.)
Versteeg has stated that writing this album served a therapeutic function for him, but listening to it is also deeply healing. You're left feeling as though you're not the only one in pain, mired in confusion, or blinded by anger. Not so much a rallying cry as a reassuring hand on our shoulders, Strangers Like Us is a relatable and beautiful debut from Mav Karlo, artist of the people. After all, its title is effectively "us." (Royal Mountain Records)