Hotline TNT: Cartwheel

For most of its existence, shoegaze promised a glimpse of an alternate plane of existence, either in the womb, the afterlife, or the unconscious. You know, “dreamlike,” “heavenly,” “ethereal”—whatever assured transcendence from this mortal coil. Mere words melt into suggestive, non-verbal cues. The typical hierarchy of rock band instrumentation dissolves, the guitars and bass and drums surging as one utopian soundwave. The right effects bank can turn that piece of wood you used to strum “Wonderwall” into a jet engine or a swarm of comets. And though shoegaze has repeatedly rejuvenated itself by merging with digicore, black metal, emo, and even alt-country, perhaps the most impactful change for the genre over the past decade is its acceptance of life on life’s shittiest terms, emerging now from the cramped apartments and overworked laptops of the bummed-out and broke. Such as Will Anderson, the mid-30s mastermind behind Hotline TNT’s intoxicating second LP, Cartwheel, where an average guy’s everyday heartbreak is blown up into a Loveless for the lovelorn.

Though Anderson made his reputation in cosmopolitan Vancouver and Brooklyn, Cartwheel exposes his roots as a quintessential Midwestern indie rocker, born in Wisconsin and mo(u)lded by a non-musical stint in Minneapolis. Much of Cartwheel abides to the Copper Blue standard of redlining power-pop, impressing itself equally with sticky, circular melodies and concussive volumes. But when Hotline TNT tap the keg and hit the gas on “Out of Town,” Anderson throws a winking “baby girl” into the first line and channels his inner Paul Westerberg. “We had to betray the Bob Mould guidance one of these days and see how the other half lives,” he joked in a statement. To Hotline TNT, those Twin Cities indie rock icons aren’t just role models, they’re the authors of the commandments: Be striving but skeptical, passionate but never pretentious.

The Twin/Tone influence on Cartwheel is obvious, and so is its spirituality, drawing out the Midwestern tendency to manifest modesty as self-deprecation and/or self-sabotage. In the early aughts, Anderson made a non-SEO-friendly name for himself with the scuzzy noise-rock project Weed. Hotline TNT gave themselves a similarly hard time by withholding their debut Nineteen in Love from streaming and trying to generate momentum as a live act during the thick of the pandemic. It can’t be a coincidence that the Cartwheel cover art imagines a bootleg Charlie Brown T-shirt, because Anderson spends most of the album breaking his own heart in 10 words or less: “After the fall/I pretend it’s all my fault,” “Tell better lies/Unsatisfied/Maybe next time.” Lead single “I Thought You’d Change” is the most hopeful song on Cartwheel and, for that reason, also the saddest; after whiffing so many times, why would he expect anyone to change?

The recent reimagining of Tim, the Replacements’ infamously tinny major label debut, as their forever-denied blockbuster reanimates the questions that had vexed Anderson when signing to Jack White’s Third Man imprint: How can an underdog band flex its increased confidence and craft without sounding triumphant? The guitar tones on Cartwheel are indulgent, though never gaudy, reflecting the very specific priorities of someone who will happily survive another month with no bed frame because they really needed the latest Death by Audio pedal.

There are the requisite trick shots: Opener “Protocol” rises and grinds both coffee and teeth, its pristine chord progression soon drowned out by what sounds like at least three household appliances stirring to life; the queasy guitars on “Son in Law” are strung with bungee cords. But Cartwheel gets the most mileage out of blunt-force volume. Its digital clipping and deafening compression are load-bearing features that make the hugeness inextricable from its limitations: This is music for jailbreaking the volume limiter on a pair of headphones. “BMX” and “I Thought You’d Change” lean on melodic lead riffs that recall dozens of ’90s alt-rock hits without sounding like any in particular, yet Hotline TNT’s arena-rock dreams ensure that the cheap seats will feel like an underplay at a venue with no noise ordinance.

Though Cartwheel occasionally relents in tempo and density, it’s extremely loud at all volumes, a force multiplier for the saddest secrets of its source material—power-pop love songs in love with the concept of love as learned from other power-pop songs about the same thing. Anderson overdubs himself not to achieve harmony or catharsis, but to prove that misery loves any kind of company it can get. And whereas most shoegaze legends were shrouded in mystery, dehumanized by design, Hotline TNT supplements its music with NBA zines, Twitch streams, and cameos by Brooklyn comedians. No matter how far into the red Cartwheel pushes, there’s one sound that stands out: Anderson’s humble, everydude voice, somehow rising above the clouds of dirt and grime even at a mumble.

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