On his solo debut, the frontman of emo band Foxing offers a mix of bubble-grunge, jangly power-pop, and breezy balladry. It manages to be as heavy and compelling as his main group.
“No One Likes You”—
Conor Murphy’s solo album was inevitable—but not because he’s been held back by the emo band he fronts, Foxing. The St. Louis quintet has always been pragmatic about their expected lifespan, and their oft-repeated Foxing slogan is “we’re a band, and someday we won’t be a band.” That Smidley would be a lighter affair than Foxing’s two albums also seemed inevitable; 2013’s The Albatross and 2015’s Dealer were among the most painstakingly crafted and emotionally draining records produced by emo’s fourth wave. So here we have Smidley, which is unsurprisingly more streamlined and accessible than Foxing. That it manages to be just as heavy and compelling, though, is a surprise.
There’s every indication that Murphy meant Smidley as a free-spirited and free-flowing affair. Though they’re impossible to spot without the credits, Smidley is a thoroughly Philly record, featuring Tigers Jaw’s Ben Walsh, Eric Slick (Dr. Dog), and Cameron Boucher from Sorority Noise (albeit on saxophone); it’s produced by Joe Reinhart of Hop Along and emo revival OGs Algernon Cadwallader. With the exception of presumptive medley “Nothing’ll” and “Pink Gallo,” every song on Smidley is a detour into unfamiliar settings for Murphy. There’s sticky, bubble-grunge (“No One Likes You”), jangly power-pop (“Dead Retrievers”), crafty and breezy Elliott Smith balladry (“It Doesn’t Tear Me Up”)—a well-balanced serving of standard issue stuff in 2017 indie rock.
The fatigue associated with these styles usually comes down to the familiarity of the vocals—laconic musings on existential dilemmas, lo-fi double-tracked confessionals, and the like. While his tics could not have been better designed to assimilate within Foxing’s seismic shifts and dramatic crescendos, given the more trad settings of Smidley, his adenoidal yelps and serrated, erratic screams are familiar in a completely unexpected way. With that, the album draws a connection between emo and the Brian Wilson/Wayne Coyne mode that became de rigeur in the sponge-painted, day-glo indie of the late 2000s. The twisted album cover and art direction of the video for “Fuck This” lead one to believe that Murphy may very well hold the torch for the likes of Yeasayer’s Odd Blood.
The trippiness in Smidley’s psych-pop isn’t a facade. This is a plainly druggy record, in that a lot of drugs that went into making of it—MDMA, Xanax, acid, cocaine, gin, rye, red wine, 2C-1—are name-dropped, and Murphy even threatens to drink “everything under the sink.” That regimen sounds unexpected coming from Murphy, but it’s all still plenty sad. On “Hell,” he sings with a sweet nostalgia about a shared bad trip—“If this was hell, let me sink into it.”
For the most part, all of these mind-altering substances open Murphy up to express himself in ways that we haven’t heard from him before. Namely, he’s got the ability to laugh at himself. “No One Likes You” is a self-affirmation that deflates Foxing’s dead serious on-record reputation, and “Fuck This” repeats its title as a hook, playfully self-sabotaging Smidley’s best chance at an algorithmic playlist hit. Still, Murphy has never written a song more stripped bare than “Milkshake,” as he unsteadily moans, “I love every moment that I’m fucked up” over fingerpicked stumbles—it has the same intensity that turned Foxing’s “Rory” into a generational anthem of unrequited love. And yet, “Milkshake” isn’t meant to be dramatic in the same way, nor is it a cry for help. “At least I’m under the table with you,” he sings on the ensuing closer. It scans as an explanation behind getting fucked up and perhaps also Smidley itself. Both could be seen as escapes from one’s primary obligations, but they’re a means of community and connection.