Austin, Texas bedroom-dream-pop outfit Sleep ∞ Over began as a trio. After releasing a self-titled cassette and the especially delicious “Outer Limits” 7” on Forest Family Records, two members left the group to pursue other projects, leaving Stefanie Francisco to helm this ship alone. But while losing two-thirds of its participants might kill more extroverted projects, Sleep ∞ Over has always made the sort of murky, lo-fi music that congeals its members’ efforts into a single, hazy, semisolid whole. If anything, becoming a solo act should only enhance the intimacy of Sleep ∞ Over’s sound.
But is this the case with Forever, Franciotti’s debut LP? Not quite; this album emphasizes the “dream” over the “pop,” equally willing to indulge in romantic balladry (“Romantic Streams,” “Casual Diamond”) and abandon lyrics and structure for thick washes of droning atmosphere. “Porcelain Hands,” a two-minute transitional piece, appears like a fog that smothers the listener in soothing, almost amelodic ambient noise. “Cryingame” is twice as long and even more noise-oriented, suggesting that Franciotti is more of an abstract songwriter than earlier Sleep ∞ Over let on.
The record is at its best when it combines its pop sensibilities with its ambient leanings, as on “The Heavens Turn By Themselves,” in which cautious echoes give way to a reverberating, slow-mo space-jungle beat and delicate swaths of aged analogue tones. Just before the 2:30 mark, the song blossoms in aural bliss, Franciotti’s bewitching coos soaring over the kind of measured catharsis with which Sleep ∞ Over (and its haunted-pop ilk) seem most comfortable. Forever isn’t a tense record, but it never erupts past its sedated emotional baseline; there are no “10 Mile Stereo”-esque denouements to be found here.
That’s not to say that the album lacks hooks; it’s just that they’ve been distended into honeyed obscurity. “Casual Diamond” buries its melodic progressions beneath a woolly blanket of echoing beams of guitar, while “Flying Saucers are Real” relies on the sort of samey 7th chord transitions made famous by the likes of the Smiths. But whereas Morrissey used lyrical wit and his achingly beautiful voice to draw out the subtle shifts in his songs’ mood and pitch, Franciotti goes the other way and pushes her melodies even further into the mix. This trope gets overused but here it’s apt; these songs really are hypnagogic, and subsequent listens reveal a greater familiarity with these tunes than you might expect. In other words, these songs are subtly catchier than they may initially seem.
It doesn’t hurt that Franciotti saves her best track for last. “Don’t Poison Everything” is positively dramatic compared with the rest of the album’s material; with a stronger beat, less static, and a few gothic FX, it could easily be a Zola Jesus torch song. Actually, it’s not really the album’s send-off; that distinction belongs to an uncredited “bonus track” that approximates Balam Acab’s brand of glacial, codeine-warped R&B. It’s a fittingly murky finale for an ambiguously catchy album that melts pop musicality into a goopy stew of coquettish posturing and smoky atmospherics. A thousand anonymous Bandcamps have tried to achieve something similar but failed where Franciotti succeeds; she’s a talented enough songwriter to not need “lo-fi aesthetics” as a crutch for forgettable melodies. In her hands, electronic atmospherics don’t pummel or overwhelm her songs but rather distort them into identifiable yet undeniably alien transmissions, the musical equivalent of a fun-house hall of mirrors. Forever drone-pop, in other words, and it suits Sleep ∞ Over just fine.