Photo by Julia Leiby
It’s been one year almost to the day since Philadelphia indie rock quartet Highnoon released their debut album, Semi Sweet. At the time, they were still a duo–fledgling singer/songwriter Kennedy Freeman recording with the help of Justin Roth. They made the record in “an eerie West Philly warehouse with no windows,” as the story goes, so maybe it’s no wonder the sound captures the exquisite loneliness and unexpected discovery of Freeman’s songs so well. To mark the anniversary, Oof Records released a limited edition run of 50 cassettes, featuring two bonus tracks (with 10% of sales going to Vamos Juntos). There’s already talk of a second run from the label, and listening back, it’s easy to see why.
The prevailing sense of Semi Sweet–the source of the Semi–is longing for a resolution. It permeates lyrics of romantic disappointment and general disillusionment as deeply as it permeates the chord progressions, which brim with quiet tension. The instrumental “Intro” kicks off in stark, unsettled dissonance, and it sets the rest of the album on a path of tantalizing expectation and just-suspended satisfaction. Freeman’s voice is smooth and dreamy on “Lens,” but the lyrics are rife with imperfection and contradiction, where sweet daydreams butt up against the coldness of waking life. So the chords follow suit, ringing with their own subtle conflict.
Part of that depth comes from the point Semi Sweet represents in Freeman’s progress as a student of the guitar; as they explained in a 2019 interview with Gold Flake Paint, “I had just gotten over the first big learning curve so I wanted to put together all the new chords I learned in ways that were new for me.” Compared to a more organic composition process–just picking chords that would sound nice together–that kind of guided, exploratory assembly yields more complicated structures. In turn, by incorporating more and varied chords, Freeman captures a larger range of emotional implications.
It also makes for a nice, full sound, whether in the record’s plugged-in, guitar-bass-percussion arrangements or its more stripped-down, direct moments. In other words, the guitar parts are developed enough to stand on their own–everything else is dynamics. Take the transition from the instrumental title track, all hustling drums and restless guitar, into the gentle, acoustic sway of “Middle Distance Runner.” That track, paradoxically, may be the loneliest as well as the warmest. Freeman sings of hands clenched until they turn blue with a deceptively languid, summery calm. Their Bandcamp bio puts the feeling better than I can: it feels like “when the sun shine and u go mmm :)”
Every part of the cycle, hopes gotten up and let down, comes to a head in the last track, “Bloom,” recorded as a voice memo–as minimal as it gets. It’s the record’s jazziest, most unsettled progression, and Freeman strums it tentatively, bathed in white-noise hiss. It winds down to the end, stopping suddenly without resolving its last chord; instead, you just hear fingers lifting off the frets, leaving the record as it began, in a wistful tangle of emotional and musical thorns. In the absence of that closure, the few moments of relief hit all the harder, like the aching sigh of lead guitar on “Mello Yello,” with its contented cloudy day reflection. The Sweet is there if you look for it, but the Semi is where Highnoon shines.