Album Review: Kelsey Magnuson – Don’t Budge

[Earth Libraries; 2022]

Time moves in strange ways for Kelsey Magnuson, as it does for us all. As life does, sometimes it seems to be jetting along at the blink of an eye, and at other moments it feels desperately slow. “Of a world bent on its axis / I never make time to practice / All the things I wanna get down / But shit I’m still having fun,” the Olympia-based singer declares on “Beep Beep”, the opening track of debut album Don’t Budge. It was written near the start of the pandemic, where time seemed to morph and tilt in strange ways, and Magnuson recalls “the sound (beep! beep!) of a friend’s watch that went off on the hour every hour was particularly noticeable… how each hour could pass without much happening at all. The days would drag and then all of a sudden pass too quickly.

Measuring this kind of time is hard for Magnuson too. “But my life is just made up of fractions on fractions of fractions on fractions,” she clarifies later on the song, but a few tracks later she confesses “I’m not good at fractions” when trying to guess which day of the week it is. Despite not being able to track time effectively, she still has a rather magnificent way of honing in on details that capture moments in time.

Magnuson is the lead, but it’s a band featuring bassist/guitarist Robin Caromosino, percussionist Ian Francis, and Eva Leach on vocal harmonies, and the songs on Don’t Budge are snapshots of a life in your 20s, navigating relationships and social interactions. It matters little what exact time it is, because the feelings captured here feel timeless for anyone who has transitioned through early adulthood.

It also helps that the band has a knack for catchy hooks and simple setups. Apart from perhaps the woozy closing number “Faking It”, nothing feels overly adorned; recorded largely in Caromosino’s analog home studio, the electric energy feels present through. Favouring simple  guitar rhythms that seem to swing between chords, Magnuson knows not to muddy her words with too much action. The second half of “Put Me In Coach” (a track about trying to navigate inclusivity in a polyamorous relationship, and not about being put in the economy seats on a flight) is perhaps the album’s most propulsive and energized moment; it’s titular chorus will sit in your head for days. Right after, the compact “This Town” with its limber bass and skittering drums, is just as liable to circle about in your brain. Magnuson’s rejection in particular (“This town is too / too small to fool around with you”) is delivered with such a cool ease it leaves a lasting taste in your mouth.

Though Magnuson may paint herself as the worried overthinker at times (“Then an awkward silence breaks out at a party / If it was my fault well hey i’m sorry”; “Get a grip girl you’re not that cool / Come on Kels obsess about something else”), there are nuggets of assured wisdom to be found here too. On the aforementioned “Beep Beep”, she’s navigating how to live life to its fullest and give time to important things. Beyond the quiet and sardonic frustration about being offered a high five instead of making out on “Coulda Made Out” she glides over the line “Listen up we all got childhoods we didn’t choose” so quickly it’s easy to miss and appreciate. “This Town” tries for a moment of self-reflection with “Let’s shake hands and say I been good to you / And If I haven’t then I wanted to” that negates itself, but still sounds like a personally significant moment of growth. 

And it’s not just the words, as Magnuson’s delivery sells it sometimes. For the most part there’s strands of Courtney Barnett to be found with her wordiness (though Julie Doiron and Anna McClellan are cited as main influences), but on “Never Been Hurt” she seems to be channeling Fiona Apple, her voice seething with each lilt; by the end section her eyes seem widened as she grins, “So congrats on that, pat yourself on the back, what did ya get into a tiff and not fight back.” The harmonizing with Leach is often subtle, but hugely effective in giving Magnuson’s voice greater presence when she’s doubling down on a sentiment. 

Helped by its brevity, Don’t Budge doesn’t outstay its welcome, and seems to make its exit just as it hits a real stride. The album’s back half has the real takeaways, from the rollicking “Put Me In Coach” to the jangling “Waitress”, where Magnuson pulls off an excellent response to what sounds like a condescending partner who doesn’t know her worth.

By the end the steely exterior displayed there comes away; “Growing up feels like we’re faking it / so why don’t we fake it together,” she declares on the closing track over a swaying rhythm punctuated by a waltzing piano (and some clarinet hiding in the background too). It’s a swirl of the album’s themes: struggling to transition from young adulthood and trying to find the right person to do it with. But not just that. It’s finding someone to spend time with, however it may move or be measured. Before you know it that beep beep sounds again, and the next moment has arrived. But what a great album we have with Don’t Budge to help us move between those alarms.