Release date: March 9th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Lo-fi indie rock, folk punk, electro-folk, experimental rock
When Emperor X released The Lakes of Zones B and C (one of my favorite albums of 2022) last year, it was Chad Matheny’s first full-length record in about half a decade. Those who follow Matheny and Emperor X closely, however, know that Matheny isn’t resting on his laurels between proper albums–one can count on a steady stream of new Emperor X music in some form, such as 2020’s United Earth League of Quarantine Aerobics EP and 2021’s “Sad React” single. The occasion of an Emperor X Northeastern U.S. tour has resulted in a new EP from Matheny, and this one already feels like it matches the strength of the last few full-lengths for me. The six-song Suggested Improvements to Transportation Infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor EP is, more or less, what its title suggests–each of the half-dozen tracks are rooted in the transit systems of one of the cities on Matheny’s upcoming tour, and are, as he says, pulled from “transit policy and 30 years of public infrastructure memories” from Matheny, an American expat currently living in Berlin.
If anyone could write emotionally-resonating songs grounded in transit policy, it’s Chad Matheny, who’s rung pathos out of everything from air conditioners to Facebook statues. Eschewing the relative polish of The Lakes of Zones B and C, Suggested Improvements to Transportation Infrastructure… was recorded via four-track, aiding its feeling of scribbled observations by Matheny made while riding the mobile town halls of the American Northeast. This is particularly apparent in opening track “Friendship Heights Metro Station and Related Proposal for Alignment Adjustments to the Purple Line (for WMATA)”, a lo-fi acoustic Emperor X classic that establishes immediately that the EP is not going to just be, as Matheny puts it, “cold hyper-local policy recommendations”. In the song, Matheny ponders a missed connection with someone playing Pavement songs on said poorly-routed trainline. Don’t get me wrong, the transportation-related complaints are present–“Forty years later, I still yell a lot / I’m still annoyed / They routed wrong,” Matheny proclaims, but, more tellingly, he follows that with “One hundred years later when I yell again for one last time / The song you played, still on my mind”.
If one fails to see the universality in these songs already, “An Objection to the Location of the Entrance to the Girard Ave. ACME (for SEPTA and PRA)” spells it out for you. There’s a lot to pick from here: “How can you call this a development / When the only thing that’s going up is my rent?” certainly says a lot concisely, as does Matheny shrieking “It was a cash grab!”, but Matheny straight-up acknowledging that what’s happening in Philadelphia is also occurring in “a hundred other towns and a thousand other cities” is the biggest moment of clarity. And as someone who has seen plenty of invaluable, irreplaceable cultural and natural artifacts lost in the service of building “your dumb roads”, the second verse is particularly cathartic. Speaking of catharsis, did I mention that “An Objection to the Location…” is an all-time Emperor X indie pop banger that ends with Matheny shouting “guitar!” and “even more guitar!” and being answered by blistering guitar soloing?
“Shoegaze Hydroplane City USA (for CDOT)” and “DMT/JMZ (for MTA and NYCHA)” are both classic lo-fi Emperor X ballads, pulling from frozen moments in time and periods of life to really build up the humanity and tranquility that one can find in motion (and they’re both especially fitting after “We Demand Tri-County Rail Now! (for NJDOT)”, the one song where Matheny dives headfirst into his experimental electronica side and reads a Wikipedia article to veer into the other direction). “Shoegaze Hydroplane City” is a particularly gorgeous snapshot of an overly stormy carpooling session with “the shoegaze engineer”, with the role of the “lack of funds, lack of planning, and general lack of will” in the creation of these hazardous driving conditions mostly staying in the undercurrents of the overwhelmed storm drains (“We were a car, we were a boat, we were a hydroplane,” will stick with me for a long time, I think), while “DMT/JMZ” finds escape from a shitty living situation in taking alternate transit routes “for a change”.
The catharsis of “An Objection to the Location of the Entrance to the Girard Ave. ACME” is matched by the bright closing track “Bullet Train to Worcester (for MBATA)”, an irresistible piece of piano pop that rightfully sneers at those who naively or disingenuously ask the question in the song’s refrain (“But how you gonna pay for it?”) but ends itself and Suggested Improvements to Transportation Infrastructure… by hopefully imagining a better and more efficient future and by taking pleasure in working towards these goals at any scale. “Hurry up and join, we’re printing trillion dollar coins / We’ll spend them all on the public,” cheerily declares Matheny–a plan better than anything offered by anyone with any individual power in the transportation world. After asking a particularly pointed question in “An Objection to the Location of the Entrance to the Girard Ave. ACME”, Matheny says “This is not rhetorical”, which is a statement that applies to Suggested Improvements to Transportation Infrastructure… in full. This EP isn’t the work of a policymaker several degrees removed from the systems it discusses; it’s a dispatch from somebody right there, riding the rails. (Bandcamp link)