, the long-awaited sophomore album by Bloomington’s Erin Tobey, has its roots in one of the most infamous bargains in music history.
Like many children of the 1990s, Tobey supplemented her CD collection through the BMG Music Club, which was one of several companies offering 10 albums for the price of only one.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t have any money, so you’re not going to go out and buy 10 CDs. BMG was the most music I ever got at once.”
The deal allowed the teenager an opportunity to hear some unknown artists she might otherwise have dropped $15.98 on, to nurse her own musical ambitions and claim her own set of influences.
“I remember one of the CDs in that first BMG order was Liz Phair’s Whipsmart. I wish I could remember what all else was in there.” For a moment she retreats into the Case Logic CD wallet of her memory, then blurts out, “Jill Sobule!”
Remembered or forgotten, those albums left a mark on Tobey, and she carried that DIY aesthetic with her as she learned to play guitar, started writing her own songs, and played in a succession of punk bands during the early 2000s.
In 2005, the 24-year-old released her self-titled solo debut through Bloomington’s Plan-It-X Records. It’s a collection of lo-fi tunes featuring Tobey’s stark vocals and dexterous guitar playing, introducing her as a singer who favors practiced restraint and a songwriter who prizes lyrical precision and melodic concision. For years Erin Tobey appeared to be only one in a series of different projects by a musician who got more thrills collaborating with friends than she did playing alone. She recorded one-off albums with short-lived bands like Mt. Gigantic, local favorites Abe Froman and Fat Shadow. Her current project, a duo with Amy Oelsner called Brenda’s Friend, just released its second collection of spare indie pop, House Down.
Middlemaze continues to mine her favorites from the ‘90s, imaginatively updating that decade’s buzzy guitar pop as well as its diligent DIY ethos. She writes with the emotional frankness of Phair, the daring of Sobule, the catchiness of the Posies, another favorite band. She sings in a high register, and the way she sculpts her syllables recalls both the world-weary wryness of Aimee Mann and the knowing self-possession of Juliana Hatfield. “In a lot of ways I feel like I live in that era.”
To her credit, Middlemaze
never plays like the work of a revivalist artist. The songs aren’t mired in nostalgia, the sound isn’t a pose, and you don’t need to know the difference between Veruca Salt and Girlpool to enjoy songs like the expansive “All Over the World” or the just-shy-of-goofy “Baby Monitor.” Tobey deploys these familiar sounds as a means of personal assessment, using the language of her teenage self to figure out her adult self. “I’m young, I could move a mountain,” she sings on the slowly unfurling opening track, “I’m Young.” “Stone by stone, it may take all day.”
These new songs constantly toggle between Tobey’s younger and older selves, as though taking stock of the last decade of her life. “Flotsam in the Wake” meditates on the nature of creative expenditure and artistic evolution, with Tobey extolling her friends’ accomplishments (“Justin, your songs are like drowning”). “We will make, we will mend more than we break, because we remember being flotsam in the wake,” she sings, offering up something close to an artistic mission statement.
It’s a song that seems to come from the pen of an experienced musician, but “Flotsam” is the oldest song on the album. She originally recorded it for a 2006 compilation by the now-defunct Bloomington label Harlan Records. “It was something that I put away for a while, because it felt like its purpose had expired. It’s about being inspired by the creativity of your friends, but they’re friends I never see anymore. They’re still very meaningful to me. It’s funny to have that connection to whatever I was doing then.” The song links the thirtysomething Erin Tobey to the twentysomething Erin Tobey, one who was reeling from a bad breakup and using those dire emotions to fuel her music.
“The songs on the first album all served this very specific purpose of dealing with being sad, but not long after that, I met my husband and my life totally changed. My emotional landscape totally changed.”
Returning to “Flotsam” so many years later was an intense experience.
“For eight years I wasn’t playing regularly with a band, so I only ever played that song by myself. The words stayed the same. Everything about it stayed the same. But I feel like we made it something completely different.”
The “we” is important. Tobey is careful to emphasize the contributions made by her small band, which includes her brother Matt Tobey on drums (known for writing music as Matty Pop Chart and with Memory Map, Kimya Dawson, Lil Bub) and her husband Jeff Grant on bass (co-owner of Hopscotch, one of the best coffeeshops in Indiana). They had practiced but never played a show together before laying down tracks at Russian Recording in Bloomington, with Mike Brodinsky (Lil Bub’s Dude) manning the boards.
“I did some set design for Lil Bub’s 2016 calendar, and told Mike, why don’t we do a trade and you give me some studio time? I felt like if I didn’t make myself do it, it was never going to get done. I had accumulated all these songs, but I had become paralyzed. I figured if I had this studio time, that would give me a reason to get moving,” Tobey says.
Perhaps for that reason Middlemaze
becomes an album about action: making decisions, exerting control over your own fate, reaching for things instead of letting them simply come to you. It’s a feeling Tobey recalls from her youth, when she had to be much more aggressive in cultivating her own tastes. She had to shop at record stores, fill out membership cards for record clubs, trade mixtapes with friends, and finally she had to make her own music.
“Seed the clouds and make it rain,” she sings on “Medicine Garden,” arguably the catchiest track on the new album. The guitars jangle wildly, the drums pound not like thunder but more like a party, and Tobey takes a pop conceit like rain—something usually approached as an uncontrollable force of nature—and turns it into a cry for self-transformation. “Babe, I know it’s hard to change.”
She might be offering advice to a friend or high-fiving the listener, but more likely Tobey is talking to herself—telling herself not to get rained on, to keep pushing herself to create in as many different forms as possible. “I’ve always had a lot of paralysis, especially with these solo songs that are the most autobiographical and come from a really vulnerable place. Ten years ago I think I was a little more carefree, but over time I think I’ve gotten more confident even as that kind of vulnerability feels harder and harder to express. That sounds really sad, but it’s not. It took a while, but it’s triumphant to have this album finished.”
If you go
Erin Tobey with Amy O and Tammar
Friday, June 10, 8 p.m.
The Blockhouse, 205 S. College, Bloomington