Pop on Her Own Terms

Pop on Her Own Terms

Remember when songs with production as eccentric or minimal as Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?,” Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” and Clipse’s “Grindin’” could be major hits? Eva Moolchan, a queer woman who works as a one-woman band under the name Sneaks, certainly does. The ambition and achievement of her latest album, “Highway Hypnosis,” jumps to the big leagues. Her 2017 EP “It’s A Myth” stretched the limits of hand-made minimalism: it consisted almost entirely of her vocals and bass guitar on top of a cheap drum machine. (One song departed from that by adding synthesizer to the mix.) Although it was a satisfying listen, it suggested that Sneaks needed to eventually branch out.

“Highway Hypnosis” still feels thoroughly DIY, but it engages with pop music to a far greater degree. The songs that were released earlier as singles, like “Hong Kong To Amsterdam” and “Money Don’t Grow On Trees,” mix post-punk with hip-hop and dance music. The album’s credits don’t say anything about who played the instruments on it, suggesting that Moolchan did it all. (She produced it with Carlos Hernandez and Tony Seltzer.)

In Merge Records’ press release for “Highway Hypnosis,” Moolchan clarifies her perspective, saying that she “takes up space among the patriarchy” and “ joins the resistance forged by queer black feminists who create, explore, empower, conquer, and play bass.”

The complete lack of respect for genre boundaries on “Highway Hypnosis” is implicitly political. What kind of music is “natural” for a queer African-American woman to make?

Moolchan pushes her voice to its full capacities, going back and forth among singing, rapping, speaking, and even whispering on the same song. This is becoming increasingly common in contemporary music, from the mainstream to the underground. She loops and overdubs herself, performing alongside multiple versions of her own voice.

Sneaks emerged from the punk scene in Baltimore and Washington, DC, but her music is completely free of any aggression. “Highway Hypnosis” has a hushed, gentle quality, even though it frequently integrates woozy electronics.

If she wanted to, Sneaks could release a whole album of bangers. But “Highway Hypnosis” also emphasizes its experimental side. The 90-second “Addis” plays its entire backing track backwards. “Saiditzoneza” is similarly brief and fragmentary, with the title (the only word used in the song) repeated over a distorted drum machine and static.

“Holy Cow Never Saw A Girl Like Her” sounds like the intro to a more conventional rock love song, with Moolchan singing the title line over distorted bass guitar, but full instrumentation never kicks in. It doesn’t develop beyond that point and ends before hitting the minute mark. Sneaks seems to be deliberately frustrating listeners’ expectations with it, although “And We’re Off” turns out to be the song it could have turned into.

“The Way It Goes” uses sampled horns over a Latin-influenced beat to expand Sneaks’ sound. It embraces hip-hop on her terms, with a section where she raps about skateboarding. “Money Don’t Grow On Trees” is based around an odd synthesizer sound that never actually turns into a melody.

The final song, “Hong Kong To Amsterdam,” shows the full potential of Sneaks’ pop side. It begins with a drum machine doing its best to ape a tennis ball slamming hard against a wall. (This album’s percussion never sounds remotely like a real drum kit.) When the song fully kicks in, Moolchan delivers her vocals in a singsong flow, carefully enunciating “I’m running a mile, I see to it and I go with it.” A clipped synthesizer supplies texture. The song is tuneless aside from the vocals, but it’s extremely catchy while remaining left-field (although no more so than hit singles like Lorde’s “Royals” and M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”) The music videos for it and “Money Don’t Grow On Trees,” made from 16mm footage of a European tour, also seem to announce Sneaks to the world beyond small clubs in the US.

“Highway Hypnosis” reflects both a love of pop music and a distance from a present when it means vacuous male artists like Post Malone and Ed Sheeran. Sneaks’ lyrics show she is self-aware about introducing herself to a wider audience with this album. The title track opens it, beginning with her whispering “highway hypnosis” in her best ASMR voice, followed by “oh my gosh, ‘Highway Hypnosis’ is coming out on Merge Records, get it today.” “Ecstasy” ends with the line “long live Sneaks.” This music’s playfulness and free will are intoxicating. “Highway Hypnosis” finds joyful common ground between ‘80s artists like ESG and Delta 5 and the best production of The Neptunes and Timbaland.

SNEAKS | “Highway Hypnosis” | Merge Records | mergerecords.com