The story of Blush Face, for me, begins at Roanoke, Virginia’s historic Grandin Theatre, where I worked for a summer during high school.
My co-worker, fellow Roanoke native Allie Smith, let me have a CD of her favorite music, and she put two tracks of her own onto it. At the time, I remember that I enjoyed the songs by Band of Horses and She + Him and somehow hated Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger”. I was new to music in general.
My favorite was one of her compositions, a cute ditty called “Umbrella Day”. On the surface, Smith sings (with looping vocal effects and piano in the background) about a narrator who spots a “very cute fellow” during a rainstorm: “I smiled and took my camera and walked across the street/I said sir, do you mind?/And he said ‘Sure doll, it’s my treat.’” The man walks away without leaving his name, and the narrator, unable to find him again, is left with only his picture.
I sort my computer’s iTunes music alphabetically by artist, and somehow “Allie Smith” has remained at the very top of it since 2010, just above Anberlin and Andrew Bird. This, I’m sure, has contributed to how I’ve never quite forgotten the feeling that, musically, she was on to something.
Fortunately, she kept at it, forming the band Blush Face with drummer Drew Barnocky in Richmond in 2016, as described in a recent interview. The band was soon joined by Chris Carreon on bass and Evan Hoffman on guitar. Blush Face’s first proper album, What Do You Want?, is set for a September 23 release, with writing credit for each song going to Smith.
What Do You Want? follows the release of recordings from a stellar three-track radio appearance by the band in October 2016 on WRIR Breakfast Blend, which introduced me to Blush Face’s sound and encouraged me to travel from Roanoke to Richmond to see them perform this summer. The band is very much a product of the local Richmond music scene, particularly the Carytown neighborhood where Smith now helps manage a different independent movie theatre, the Byrd (where the band got its Facebook banner photo), in addition to juggling occasional odd-jobs.
Blush Face’s Bandcamp page describes their sound as “’lectric lullaby pop rocks,” which is a more accurate description than I can come up with. Their performance live, if the event I attended at the Mexican restaurant/bar/venue Flora is any indication, certainly emphasizes the “rocks” part of that. It’s to the band’s credit that, as the first opening act, they thoroughly entertained the same audience that screamed with the garage punk band that followed and moshed intensely to the hard rock of the elaborately-costumed band that headlined. Blush Face even ended their set with a surprise farewell song for Carreon, who had to split from the band as a result of moving out of state. (For a song thrown together in secret and on short-notice, it was captivating and remarkably complete, alluding to the sci-fi themes of Carreon’s favorite shows.)
Most of the instrumental elements of What Do You Want? were apparently recorded at Virginia Moonwalker studios over one long day (while Carreon was still a member), no doubt the easiest method for creating the fewest conflicts with everyone’s day jobs. The vocals and some guitar flourishes were added afterwards, the former captured as pristinely as ever and the latter providing a snazzy layer not as pronounced in the more barren Live on WRIR Breakfast recordings.
The album’s hazy opener “Magnolia”, enriched by a production that includes echoes and a ringing phone, grows steadily to the point that Smith is finally ready to stretch her vocals. The song is only a warm-up, however, as the hooky “Eat My Blues” then bursts into action. The band plays in perfect synchronization, with Carreon’s churning bass and Barnocky’s confident drumming laying a powerful foundation for Smith’s bellowing vocals, which Hoffman’s guitar traces around.
In around a half hour, What Do You Want? covers an impressive amount of ground. Each song starts charmingly. Highlight “Citronella Cinderella” stays that way, boasting some of the band’s strongest chemistry as Smith meditates on romance and mortality. “Home Electric” doesn’t – it’s as loud as the band gets, cathartically releasing much of the bottled-up emotion you can often sense behind the music.
Meanwhile, the six-and-a-half minute “Purgatory” is Blush Face’s masterpiece. It opens and closes with ruminations on pushing through a sense of stagnation that I imagine has plagued many a millennial (“These days I am floating/I’m stitching, I’m sewing together the pieces/I wake up/And I see the ceiling”). In a moment that captures the band’s combination of lively rock and hopeful embrace, Smith sings, “The landlord next door/I am sorry that I am so loud/Why can’t we be friends?” When the song screeches to a halt in the second half, the lyrics are just as inviting: “What is it that you want, darling?/You can have it.” Maybe purgatory isn’t such a bad place to be.
It all ends with the exciting (if a bit incomplete) “Rock Star Drama Queen” and the reverb-heavy “Clicking Heels,” which closes the album with a sense of grace.
The key triumph of What Do You Want? is that it captures the labor of love that is Blush Face. It’s a damn fine debut that captures the full band coming together in a collective voice, albeit a dynamic one that refuses to be pigeonholed. I hope the departure of Carreon doesn’t prevent Blush Face from continuing to grow and produce more great music. They play with a sense of authenticity that reflects Smith emerging from shyness with a lot of say, like someone most comfortable viewing a handsome fellow through the eyes of a camera, but also refusing to be left with only a picture.