Album Review: Kate Bollinger – A word becomes a sound EP

[House Arrest; 2020]

With only a handful of tracks to her name, singer-songwriter Kate Bollinger has already carved out a nice little niche for herself in the crowded world of indie-pop. Though her first batch of singles were quaint acoustic tunes, she soon began transitioning her sound into a creamy blend of jazz-flecked guitars and understated electronic flourishes. Now, on her second EP, A word becomes a sound, it seems like Bollinger has everything figured out before she’s even released a full-length album.

A word becomes a sound picks up right where Bollinger’s previous EP left off. Her honeyed voice still sits atop a bed of blissful, dreamy instrumentals, but this time around she seems less afraid to make her inspirations more apparent. “Grey Skies”, for instance, is a laid-back R&B jam with a beat that sounds like something King Krule might conjure up on a wistful night alone. 

Lead single and opening track “A Couple Things” is a perfect distillation of Bollinger’s ability to instil a particular mood with just a few notes. The feathery high-hats and snare hits accompany a gently-strummed two-chord structure. “If I fuck up a couple things, well / What if I fuck up everything?” she asks in the chorus as a pair of sultry call-and-response guitars play off one another. Similar to jazz-pop peers Men I Trust, Bollinger has discovered a way to create a sort of intangible nostalgia; like reminiscing on a memory that has yet to happen. The music is familiar and comforting without feeling like a cheap knock-off of something past its golden age. 

Bollinger’s lyrics are usually melancholy missives with a hint of optimism, but the songs on A word becomes a sound convey her points more succinctly than ever before. “To quit would be too simple / To go on is what I’ll do / Now I know when my heart’s in the middle / It’ll snap, break, unsure back to you,” she sings on “Grey Skies”. Bollinger’s lyrics often feel meditative and self-reflective, as though she’s offering hindsight advice to her former self. 

On Bollinger’s first EP, I Don’t Wanna Lose, the melodies were clear as day, served up to the listener through jangly guitars and Bollinger’s sugary voice. In contrast, the melodies in A word becomes a sound are a bit more obfuscated. This yields a more mature sound at the expense of instant gratification. The warm, tube-amped electric guitar tones that characterized her previous EP still play a lead role, but now she finds room for more acoustic guitars, synthesizers, and a greater emphasis on programmed drums. These additions all come across as a natural progression in Bollinger’s development as a songwriter. The throbbing bass and tightly-wound tremolos of “Queen to Nobody” give way to a light-hearted chorus, while “Feel Like Doing Nothing” is a low-key anthem for when you need reassurance that shutting off for a while can be the best way to quell the blues. 

On A word becomes a sound, Bollinger continues to hammer away at the essence of what defines her music. Just two EPs into her career, the framework she has already built is both impressive and enjoyable. At roughly 15 minutes long, there isn’t a lot to sink your teeth into, but if these first EPs are just an appetizer to everything Bollinger has to offer, the main course is bound to be even more delectable.