Album Review: Mini Trees – Always in Motion

[Run For Cover; 2021]

“It has been a nervous year.” That’s musical comedian and every math nerd’s hero Tom Lehrer talking about the state of the world back in the mid-1960s, showing that he was ahead of the curve in yet another regard outside of his satirical songs. There are many Lehrer quotes that would fare better for everyday amusement, but this one (a casual remark uttered before one of his admittedly lesser songs, “Send The Marines”, if you want full context) lives rent free in my head, popping up every so often when people talk of how hard the past year and a half have been.

It also came to the forefront of my mind thanks to a lyric from Lexi Vega on her debut album as Mini Trees. On the second track “Doomsday” she concedes, “If we’re honest, everyone’s nervous these days.” It’s about as relatable as relatable lyrics come; everyone has something that causes them unease, be it the thought of a crowded room, returning to a normal amount of social occasions, or, you know, just that everyday feeling of existential dread. It’s a feeling that permeates and dominates Vega’s downtrodden and burdened debut Always In Motion.

Given Vega’s life has been marked by tragedy and exclusion, it’s not surprising the album has this kind of tone. The child of a Cuban-born father and Japanese-American mother, growing up Vega struggled to find a place amidst white communities, let alone somewhere that understood the generational trauma and weight of her heritage. When she was just five years old, Vega’s father took his own life, leaving emotional scars that still sound like they are being reckoned with in her music. “I lost my sense of wonder in my youth,” she utters at the centre of the album. Always In Motion, as the title suggests, tries to make sense of this ongoing battle of self against the world, contemplating the likes of memory, spiritualism, and moving on.

At first Vega might sound like she’s just nestling into the sad girl trope à la Phoebe Bridgers or Julien Baker (whom Vega has supported on stage), but Mini Trees’ melancholia is strangely alluring, even if it isn’t groundbreaking in any way. From the first few seconds of opening track “Moments in Between” it sounds like the whole thing has begun in media res, like we’re joining her mid-thought.

From there, the album has an almost expert way of submerging you in its world – a swirl of light purples, greys, and faded blues. The crescendos are there (the vortex of synths and voices of “Youth”, the bursting energy of the guitars on “Carrying On”), but they seem to so easily slip on by when you’re lost in the album’s 36 minutes of dreamy indie.

Even though Vega has worked predominantly as a drummer in various projects over the years, Always In Motion isn’t an album that relies heavily on its percussive edge. The drums and drum machines are enfolded crisply into the mix, but it’s often the soft, languid tones of the other instruments that take the spotlight. “Doomsday”‘s slinky bass lines conjure comparisons to of Montreal’s more sultry moments, while “Underwater” sounds fittingly deluged, like the track has been washed over gently with watercolours. Downbeat track “Spring” stirs together sweet bedroom pop drum blips and a lazy keyboard melody, making for a perfect accompaniment to Vega’s talk of “when colours slowly turn to spring.” Even the background breathy woodwinds on “Youth” have a way of capturing your attention. Coupled with Vega’s voice and lyrics – which can make for demoralizing reading on their own, but that’s to be expected given the album’s themes of doubt and growth – the effect is kind of quietly magical.

There’s something burbling just out of reach throughout the album, like a sparkling keychain a fingertip away in between two rocks in a reef. Multiple listens don’t feel fruitless though, it just makes Always In Motion all the more familiar. It’s like a friend who has been hiding inside their house nervously for over a year. You might never coax them out, but listening to the album feels like keeping connected with that friend from a short distance. It has been a nervous year after all, so it’s easy to understand their hesitancy.