By Matthew Levine
GEMS — a dream pop duo, comprised of Lindsay Pitts and Clifford Usher — embrace minimalism and the noir on their recently released EP Medusa. Simple, ethereal synth melodies and languid vocals wrap themselves around the senses on every song, drawing listeners into a dream heavy with imagery of fear and isolation.
Surprisingly though, this darker approach to writing music is still relatively new for the Washington, D.C. band, whose members, for the last two years, had been performing as an experimental psych-folk band called Birdlips. About a year ago though, the two decided to cut loose from the folk music scene and “do something serious.”
“The music we were playing before GEMS was pretty folky and we felt trapped by that and by folk instrumentation,” Usher told Radio.com. “We really wanted to expand and have electric guitars and electronics and stuff like that, so I think part of it was a reaction against folk music. I wanted to make very-not folk music; something loud.”
And thus GEMS was born, with the ambition to capture the idea of “existential longing.” Although the phrase is ambiguous, Usher described it as a “transcendental quality” the two hope to experience when they listen to music, explaining it’s a feeling you get “when you hear something that cuts you to the core” and it feels like there’s “a sense of yearning or searching for something.”
When listening to the title track off their recently released EP, this idea can be further understood. As Pitts croons, “I used to feel so free/the way we used to be,” one can hear — and to a certain point feel — the sensation of longing for the past. The vocals evoke the listeners memories, recalling the moments one wishes could have happened differently.
The EP takes its name from the ancient Greek legend of Medusa, but you’ll find no references to snake-haired monsters or people being turned to stone. Instead the 4-song album focuses on doubt and fear.
On “Sinking Stone,” Pitts sings, “All the voices in my head/They say we can’t go on/That I could never be your girl/But I’m still holding on,” expressing the bleakness and emotional anguish of a relationship.
Usher explained that the origin of the EP and its songs titles stem from the late anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the book, Campbell discusses the commonalities between the major religions and mythologies, specifically that of the hero’s journey.
“I read [Campbell’s] book and it really struck a chord with me,” Usher said. “The whole book is about how the mythologies we have today in religion are outdated. They’re not for our time, and that the role of the artist in today’s society is to create new mythology.”
Akin to the band’s music, themes of darkness and yearning are displayed prominently in the cover art of the duo’s EP and their video for “Pegasus.” Usher — who studied art in college and works with graphic design — finds the connection between the two unbreakable. “It’s like the visuals are the lens,” he explained. “Visuals are important because it’s the ground for how people perceive your music.”
This intimate connection between visuals and audio can be seen in the clip for “Pegasus.” On its own, the song explores the internal struggle of attempting to repair what is left in a relationship, invoking the feeling of melancholy and entrapment when facing such a situation.
Even without audio, the feeling of despair is obvious as you watch the opening scene of a dandelion blowing away lifelessly in the wind, or gazing into the emptiness of Pitts’ eyes as she looks out at you from behind a thin veil of cloth. Hearing her wail the lyrics “I can’t turn away right now/While everything we built falls down” only strengthens the video’s theme, and furthermore the band’s theme, of exploring the most negative — and yet most human — of emotions.