After countless stand-alone singles, EPs, and relentless touring, Smallpools have finally returned with their proper sophomore release called Life in a Simulation. The pop-rock band consisting of vocalist/keyboardist Sean Scanlon, drummer Beau Kuther, and guitarist/producer Mike Kamerman released their debut, Lovetap! in 2015, which seems like forever in regards to following up a popular debut. The marketing strategy for Life in a Simulation was fairly unique in that many of the singles released from the record slowly trickled out over the last year or so, including a great collaboration with Morgxn on the song “Slowdown.” While I feel the best may still be to come for Smallpools, this album definitely feels like a rebirth and a celebration of the uncertainty to the days that lie ahead.
The album opens with one of the many spacey-vibed tracks called “Simulation,” as Scanlon sets the scene in the first verse of, “The future is in the rear view / It’s so far from what they tell you / So throw away your new TV / They’re controlling what they feed me.” Most of the lyrical material found on this record explores the possibilities of not being the ones in control of our own lives, which as scary as a thought it can be, the band takes it all in stride with a newfound swagger to their sound.
One of the latest singles, “Life of the Party,” features a cool sounding bass line undertone that perfectly complements Scanlon’s vocal cadence throughout the down-tuned song. Scanlon ponders during the chorus, “Where are you now? / It’s so sad to see you go straight outta town / Are you the life of the party now? / So tell me how’s it working out? / Your ivory tower’s gonna burn / Straight to the ground / Are you the, are you the life of the party now?” I could relate to this lyrical material the band worked on since I’m coming up on 20-year high school anniversary, and due to the days of Facebook, I can keep up with the acquaintances from my late teen years and also see how the popular kids turned out to be…not so successful. Smallpools are able to consider this hindsight in their material by making real-world connections.
Other early tracks like “Ancient History” and “Before the Sun Rises” don’t seem to pack the same punch and urgency as the material found on Lovetap! so I came away slightly disappointed with the new direction the band was going for. Luckily things turn around for the better on the single “Science Fiction,” as the band majestically incorporate the space-rock vibes into a great sounding track packed with purpose.
Things continue on the upswing with “Changing,” a song about the complexities of relationships. Scanlon sings cautiously, “It happened again and I’m not okay / What once was a home is now a cave / With two lonely creatures who can’t co-habitate / Or share a plate / And now I’m wondering / Why why why / Did it have to get so quiet?” before exploding into a rewarding chorus that Smallpools have cut their teeth to.
As great as the track, “Slowdown” featuring the pop singer Morgxn is, it almost feels slightly out of place in the sequencing. The lyrical material and guitar work from Kamerman brings the song back into this stratosphere, and the band are still able to make the track seem like it belongs on this album. The harmonies between Scanlon and Morgxn are really powerful and bring a rich texture to the band’s overall sound on this record.
The closing trio of the party-ready “Cycle,” “Time,” and the introspective “Migraine” further round out the direction Smallpools were going for on Life in a Simulation. For whatever reason, I still feel like the band is right at the cusp of becoming the best version of themselves, but they’re not quite there on this album. Whether it was the strategy to release the songs as they became available (in the form of an EP, or stand-alone singles) or just the overall vibe of this record, I didn’t connect with it as immediately as their debut. The fact that I adore this band as much as I do will mean that I will attempt to come back to Life in a Simulation more often than I would have if I was just being introduced to the band. While this record was not the direction I would have chosen for the pop rockers, it’s an album that I’m glad exists in this galaxy.