There are some musicians who work better solo than with a group, but the problems that surround a solo project are many. There’s the fear of sounding monotonous, the weight of the entire project resting in one person’s hands and no other members with whom to throw ideas back and forth. However, there are exceptions — namely, Noah Stitleman, the engineer behind Neighbors and now co-creator of Total Makeover. While Stitleman had much success with his solo project, his most recent musical enterprise has been with Julie Noyce, Brian Harney and Sam Hendricks under the name Total Makeover. On August 21, the band released their first EP, which happens to be self-titled.
Previously, most of Stitleman’s work with Neighbors was based in synth-pop, and though remnants of that jut out in Total Makeover, the band as a whole are a rock outfit. The first track on the EP, “Girls With Boyfriends,” is littered with bits of electronic-pop, yet it’s a rock song at its core. The bass grooves through the song to set the mood as the drums flavor the background to create a youthful rock ballad about love and loss.
While Stitleman stays rooted mostly on vocals, he keeps the synth around to lift his songs to a higher, more compelling place. In “Girls with Boyfriends,” the synth croons during the chorus with another melodic line to fill out the song. Though the synth occasionally sounds like fighting music during a Pokemon battle, it adds a layer that suits the type of rock Total Makeover creates.
The single, “Different Shapes,” starts with a dirty bass lead saturated in distortion. It almost sounds like one of Stitleman’s synths, but those join in after a few seconds. Occasionally, the synth takes the lead for rewarding melodic lines that are almost sedative in quality. While the music becomes happily raucous throughout the song, especially during the chorus, Stitleman remains steadfast in his vocal delivery.
During some parts of the EP, namely “Self Destructive,” the band takes the listener back to the ’80s. The synth is at the helm during this piece, while the usual wall of rock the band collectively creates takes the backseat with the drums staying on almost the same conservative pulse throughout the entirety of the song, and the treble on the guitar is dialed back so much it almost sounds completely muted.
The EP takes a turn down a softer path for the penultimate song, “New England Highway.” A mellow synth drone fills the back as Stitleman’s whispery baritone describes a long drive down a highway. Even if the lyrics were not a long, quiet drive, the music certainly sets the tone for it. While it’s a quiet tune, it has its bright moments once the drums kick in and the synth begins to move from drone to flutter. It’s quite easy to get lost in the song.
Lyrically, Stitleman has a minor theme throughout the album — the inevitability of age and time. “New England Highway” is not just about a long drive, but also time ever-traveling forward and a myriad of problems propagating from that. To that end, “Either Way,” the last track, is a fun, poppy song about mis-timed love that seems to flow at a variety of different speeds. Stitleman’s voice moves like a bee as he sings, “Skip your stupid classes / and come hang out with me,” undoubtedly about a school love. True to the theme, Stitleman voices the inner passage of time, “In every single way I feel to too old for you / and in every single way you seem so young to me, and eventually, “I just can’t relate to half the human race.”
The drums march “Either Way” through animated soundscapes hitherto unheard of from the band. The snare drum is especially alluring for the entire track, propelling the song to higher highs. When listened to in its entirety, the last two tracks are paired off quite well together. The dreary droning of “New England Highway” is an excellent palate cleanser to “Either Way.”
Overall, Total Makeover has created a solid EP; fans of Neighbors will be happily surprised to see Stitleman move in a different, but familiar direction.