Asking someone to define pop music is a lot like asking a Baltimorean whether their home town is actually like The Wire: you’re bound to get an exasperated sigh and some mumbled answer in return.
Yet we continue to speculate about what pop music means, largely in part because of bands like Oakland’s Makeunder, who write songs that manage to get stuck in your head even when they leave you disoriented and puzzled, hiding their sweetest moments underneath the surface of overwhelming, dizzying arrangements.
Makeunder began as the solo project of Hamilton Ulmer; on his first release, 2012’s Radiate, Satellite, he explored the peculiar point on the musical Venn diagram where soul music, Renaissance-era harmonies and Stravinsky overlap. Recorded on a laptop microphone over the course of five days, the EP pulls the listener into “the life and death of a rural California family;” its heartbreaking stories are wrapped up in immersive arrangements, immediately bringing to mind the creaky, mysterious world of Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House.
Since releasing Radiate, Satellite, Makeunder has expanded to a septet, and their performance this Thursday at Oakland’s Awaken Cafe will be their first chance to test-drive songs from the upcoming Great Headless Blank EP. On lead single “What a Lovely Bandsaw!” the solidified lineup flexes its virtuosic strength; drums lurch, guitars glimmer like jewels and the elastic vocals provided by Danielle Reutter-Harrah and Amy Foote nail unexpected harmonies that fill up every last inch of sonic space. Although the lyrics find Ulmer emptying and selling his deceased father’s house, the arrangement remains ecstatic; full of life even as it points straight at death.
To round out the bill at Awaken, Makeunder has enlisted the help of two bands with their own unique pop sensibilities: San Francisco’s Yassou Benedict and San Diego’s Gunakadeit. While the former embraces minimal composition, shadowing tender melodies with dark, murmuring sounds, the latter doesn’t shy away from an affinity for Top 40 tunes. Though none of these bands sound quite like each other, they’ve got one thing in common: call them pop, or not, they’re all going to worm their way into your ear, one way or another.