By: Hunter Funk
January in Austin often feels like a musical dead zone. Stagnating in the wake of year-end wrap-ups and Free Week, with much of the energy proactively geared towards SXSW, it’s rare for a local act to burst out of the gate in the new year with a focused full-length release. However, garage-pop outfit Pollen Rx have done just that with their promising, substantial debut, Sunbelt Emptiness.
The slinky first notes of opener “Billboard Promises” open up the winter clouds with a ray of mellow indie rock sunshine. But things really heat up as the chorus hits and the band cuts loose with distorted riff-age and free-associative chants (“Billboard promises / Liposuction happiness / Texas lottery / Pills that’ll make me sleep.”) Lead single “Sand In The Well” is an energetic, hooky number with a hidden sinister side, its lyrics alluding to the dangers of groundwater pollution – “Hydrochloride, pump it back / Stop crying, I’ll sip the gas we frack.”
As songwriters, Ben Hirsch and Maud Morgan deftly walk the line between preachy and populist, penning woke mini-anthems for the generation of resistance. A cautionary tale like “Again” that may have come off as slightly ham-handed five years ago now feels decidedly necessary in the face of Capitol Hill climate change denial. And when they raise a yelp demanding, “Who has the guns?” on “Ar Ak”, it scans less as rhetoric than legitimate confusion. “We’re people you can’t trust, so keep your eyes on us / But your cameras can’t capture what we’re after at all,” the two sing. “Keep a steady shot for your video stock / But your news cannot cover what we’ve discovered at all.”
"As songwriters, Ben Hirsch and Maud Morgan deftly walk the line between preachy and populist, penning woke mini-anthems for the generation of resistance."
The record’s back half doesn’t dial things back one bit. The title cut opens as a queasy stomp to underscore a biting verse: “Compare yourself to pornography / And the screen blue light hurts your eyes / Never trust TV, plastic of the screen / It’s what we need? It’s what we believe.” Despite the brisk clip of its snappy chorus, the comparatively lighthearted vibe is still counterweighted by nervous content: “I’ve got subway nostalgia from new urban loneliness.” Driving pop-rocker “Apartment” views a domestic living situation through a lens of longing. Penultimate track “Packaging” is a late standout, addressing consumer culture with a sing-song melody wrapped in lyrical barbed wire: “Organic from Ecuador / Breaded on the fire / Conflict moving back and forth, I am just the buyer.” The refrain of “truth is nothing, packaging is everything” sounds especially sardonic amidst the current shitstorm of “alternative facts,” where any mistruth can be spun into opiate for the masses. The band finally relaxes a little on closer “Control”, smoothing the uptempo energy of the earlier songs into a languid desert jam most memorable for the colorful interplay of Hirsch and lead guitarist Caroline Salle, giving way to several fuzzy breakdowns that recall the better moments of Yuck’s self-titled debut.
For all its substance and compact, conscious songwriting, Sunbelt Emptiness feels much fuller than its 27-minute runtime would suggest, lending itself to repeat listens as the hooks take root in your mind. Its infectious awareness reminds me that even in the dead of winter, there’s always opportunity for self-inspection, growth, and renewal. All in all, it’s an unexpectedly enjoyable first offering from a band distilling the naked truths behind left-wing political positioning into one effective, efficient musical statement. My only request to the members of Pollen Rx: more like this, please.