It’s relatively safe to say that neither Spotify nor TicketMaster cover themselves with glory in their treatment of musicians or their fans, but I can honestly say I’ve been legit grateful for the both of them since the weekly events email from the former resulted in me throwing a box of money at the latter. Meaning, I now have tickets for The Mars Volta at the Troxy this June. It’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for since the Antemasque album dropped in 2014 and what I’ve been daydreaming about since the official reunion last year. I’m already predicting a very ‘Nelson Muntz at the Andy Williams concert’ reaction, with some pre-show tears streaming down my face at the very thought of hearing “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus”* and a proper ugly cry when I eventually do hear it. 

As on the North American tour, Teri Gender Bender is supporting, so I’ve been listening to the Complexify playlist, made up of all the EPs she released last year, in anticipation. Since I bought the tickets, I’ve been leaning towards her various musical projects to soundtrack my days, with Cell Phone Bikini a recent favourite.

Back in the day, my younger sibling and I created our own rhyming slang/familial argot (without being remotely aware of either of those concepts) in which ‘bikini’ meant ‘asshole’. It comes from back when they were fairly tiny, and the worst insult they could hurl was ‘meanie’. At some point this most benign of childish put-downs had ‘yellow polka dot bikini’ appended, probably around the time it became a joke. This was contracted to simply ‘bikini’ when it became a pet name; ‘Hey bikini’ is usually how we start our video chats. Because of this, I’m predisposed to rate Cell Phone Bikini as a title above and beyond my general love for Omar Rodríguez-López’s tossed word salad appellations, and I think I may have emailed the bikini sibling in question to tell them about it even before I actually listened to it.

The personnel is a stripped-down effort with ORL on guitars, synths, and bass, Deantoni Parks on the drums, and Teri on vocals (and writing lyrics and vocal melodies). Whether she’s shrieking the house down, eschewing any unnecessary amplification, dropping to a growly bass or filling the room with her silence and thousand-yard stare, she owns every stage she’s on, and I am so frigging excited to experience her solo show. She’s more than an asset on this record; she IS the record. 

The Quietus agrees, gushing, And with no understatement, we’ve never heard her better. Too frequently derided for simplistic lyrics and statement melodies, Gender Bender here soars over this music, elevating it throughout with impassioned pleas and pained snarls, approaching her vocal with a confidence and dynamic range akin to Ipecac’s own Mike Patton. She barks, growls, spits lyric with volcanic fury…

“Childless Mother”/”Holding Hell” kickstarts the album with a mood-setting split track. The first half buzzes with effects that add supportive texture, and even squeaky guitar strings that would normally set my teeth on edge sound natural when set against TGB’s vocals. She’s pitched lower here, giving a sonorous heft to lyrics that are reminiscent of some of the surreal and often bloody lyrics about motherhood from the Bosnian Rainbows self-titled album. Similarly, I get caught up on her enunciation of individual syllables to the point where I abandon the wood for the trees, but I maintain that both of these are perfectly cromulent ways to enjoy lyrics/poetry and it’s acceptable to regard reading comprehension as optional.

Centrepiece tracks “Amarillo”, “To My Fallen Head, I’m A Piece Of Paper” (and “Sell Myself In” continue this trend. The lyrics evoke a claustrophobic passion; Pádraig Ó Tuama’s recent Substack post muses on the poetry of Paul Celan noting, It’s like stepping inside a dream that language would have: images follow images; wordplays; references that confuse me. I have to remind myself not to stumble over what I call my ignorance, and instead allow the poems to do the work of feeling in me. I attend to the experience of the poem as I read it, rather than only my comprehension. As expected from this eminent poet, this succinct yet florid simile  defines the power lyrics can have to provide emotional definition beyond simple understanding.


“Truth Blinds Us” has been sharpened up from the instrumental version heard on the Ramrod Tapes and could easily inhabit one of multiverses where Octopus Kool Aid had been given a crisp mix. But the layers are no less rich, structured on Deantoni’s anchoring drums and peppered with spicy synths and stabbing guitar. The logic behind the opening lyrics ‘Every passing hour brings death / drags the solar system with it’ makes more and also less sense the more I hear it within the context of the already contradictory song title.

The other split track “Wolf” / “Kisses Are Fishes” continues the buzzy, surreal vocal effects that for a change I’m not mad at and that gently steers towards the album closer “Suerte Y Aire”. The simplicity of this stripped-down track is powerful; a purely acoustic version may have been a touch hokey. Instead, TGB’s vocals are accompanied by minimal synth and low-fi guitar, which give a haunted feel that hearkens back to the slow heaviness of “Wolf”. It’s a song that will grace many future playlists as an excellent closer. 

Indeed, Cell Phone Bikini’s tracklist order is perfectly curated to create a strong emotional experience across the relatively short running time. The energy here is both familiar and faintly unsettling, as when coming out of a minor fugue state, you realise you can’t quite recall how you got to the Tesco, but you definitely walked there and nothing bad happened and you’re not crazy, it’s fine, but still what the hell? 

TGB frequently stretches the boundaries of cliche – the lyrics on this album have a very extemporaneous feel to them. I don’t mean this as a burn; this kind of semi-rambling freestyle is a pretty frigging impressive skill that very few people can pull off. Her sultry delivery of what are often accusatory and manipulative lyrics is both sexy and confusing, much like the moustache she’s been sporting of late.****

This lyrical style is supported with music that tiptoes towards discordance while preventing any whimsical wandering in the realm of the wacky. If I have any complaint, it would be that it runs a bit short and I’d like more ORL soloing on general principle, since I always want that, but this is an album that showcases TGB and can’t be faulted on that point.

* The odds of hearing this song are fairly high, based on indicating that the North American shows were heavily skewed towards earlier material. I’m pre-girding my emotional loins for sure – side note, remembering my sweet little jackass Kitty…Vismund Kitty (RIP) will also play a factor in my emotional response.

** Our senior high school (honours!) English class once assigned us to write a parody of a well-known poem. My bestie did ‘Caddy’ (Plath’s ‘Daddy’), which as I recall was a rather clever take on golfing. I chose to besmirch the memory of Dylan Thomas with “In My Kraft or Sullen Recipe”, an extended riff on…Velveeta or possibly box mac & cheese? I shudder to think, but I did write A LOT of terrible-on-purpose*** poetry in high school as a saddo whose misspent youth was not misspent smoking weed, shagging around, or skipping class, but by passing notes burning on my teachers/fellow students via sneering verse, usually entitled ‘My Ode to…’[chemistry teacher/jackass sitting behind me/etc.] 

*** and just as many terrible, deeply ba/pathetic attempts.

**** said moustache speaks to teenage Bec, who was greatly attracted to Dave Foley in drag, even with Jocelyn’s terrible mullet wig.

Track listing:
Childless Mother
Holding Hell
Sell Myself In
To My Fallen Head, I’m A Piece Of Paper
Truth Blinds Us
Kisses Are Fishes
Suerte Y Aire