Album Review: Just Mustard – Heart Under

[Partisan; 2022]

To stand out in an overcrowded genre like shoegaze isn’t easy. There are hundreds of bands out there implementing distortion and feedback in hopes of capturing that same spark that elicited glee from post-punkers in the 80s. The unfortunate side is that shoegaze is a dying genre, kept only afloat by a select group of forward-thinking musicians – their best efforts overlooked for one reason or another. As is the case with many, an exciting new band arrives, only to dial back the fuzz and noise – or abandon it entirely – in favor of pop accessibility.

That’s not Just Mustard though. Since their debut Wednesday back in 2018, the Irish quintet has been slowly working towards a semi-reinvention on their sophomore release Heart Under. The prickly edges of Wednesday were no doubt a turnoff to some – it is after all a condemning mix of doom and gloom noise, something folks like me revel in but others turn their noses up at. It seems Just Mustard were cautiously aware of this trend, which is why Heart Under‘s shoegaze sounds feels surreptitious across its runtime.

Bringing vocalist Katie Ball to the forefront was the right move for the band, a departure from their debut which saw the singer take a backseat to the noise and raw instrumentation via the mixing process. Her vocals are haunting and foreboding – an inclination of dread that’s felt tenfold on opener “23”. Heart Under is a more mature effort from the band, and it’s evidenced from the start in the rolling build up to a gigantic flood of reverb.

Just Mustard operate best within parameters set by themselves, something that Wednesday’s cacophonous feel didn’t allow. There’s still mountains of noise and distortion to toy with – the rumbling of “Seed” comes to mind with its seductive grooves paired with Ball’s cutesy diction – all encapsulated with penetrative racket that seers with each beat.

This is all in support of a more drawn-out and expansive songwriting method, which provides an airiness to the band’s overall sound on Heart Under. It’s this approach that makes Just Mustard sound like a full-fledged art-rockers instead of tourists.

While there’s countless influences to be drawn on, Just Mustard aren’t rehashing the Jesus and Mary Chain or the Drop Nineteens, they’ve forged a new path with the same deliberate sounds. The absolute balls-to-the-wall lead single “Still” is proof of just how dynamic the band can be, as they captivate through multiple layers of instrumentation, Ball’s vocals marrying to the sounds perfectly – the caustic repetition is obsession-inducing. Just Mustard execute it with confidence like very few can.

These hypnotic characteristics are the biggest hook of Heart Under. The bending bass line that plods wistfully throughout “I Am You” makes for a haunting experience, especially with the thunderous drumming to propel Ball’s chanting of “Change my hair / change my dress / change my head.” The dizzying closer “Rivers” burrows into the ear like a tick and lingers long after the record ends. Just Mustard purposely situate their sound like this, with tactical reverb and experimentation.

Nothing about what Just Mustard is doing is all that original per se, but their ability to contort their instruments to sound like otherworldly utensils is truly an anomaly in shoegaze currently. The wicked atmosphere that they’ve crafted across Heart Under is worthy of celebration alone.