A childlike sense of wonder has served as a reliable muse for Minneapolis’ ahem since their formation in 2015, but on their debut album Try Again, that wonder has been bruised a little. Ahem’s ebullient power-pop songs still blow busted-lip kisses at nineties inspirations like Blake Babies and Superchunk, but for the first time, the doubts of adulthood have begun to creep in like blood vessels around the edge of a shiner.
Following two well-received EPs, Just Wanna Be (2016) and Chutes and Ladders (2018), guitarist Erik Anderson, drummer Alyse Emanuel, and new bassist Courtney Berndt set up shop at Minneapolis' Institute of Production and Recording in February of 2019. Some kind soul had gifted them with five free hours of studio time, and after originally planning on an EP, they decided to throw caution to the wind and try and turn that gifted time into a full-length record. Some bands take five hours just to set up the drums.
Luckily, they had a good crew working that day. 15 of IPR’s students combined their efforts to help ahem tear through 9 songs in less than 3 hours, cheering the band on after every take. They finished the album’s vocals and overdubs in Courtney’s basement with her husband, engineer and musician Dan Berndt. Anderson, Emanuel, and Berndt wrote many of the album’s lyrics on-the-fly together during those winter basement sessions, hanging with Courtney and Dan's cats and dog and scratching lyrics onto Alyse’s old drumheads. Images of split lips, wasted days, and wishing wells tailed together like the threads on a friendship bracelet.
Album opener "Sideways" is the perfect distillation of ahem's undeniable charms. The propulsive, melodic guitar channels Copper Blue-era Bob Mould, crashing through a cascade of intertwining vocal leads between Anderson and Emanuel. Throughout Try Again, the duo's voices sound so perfectly matched that they invite comparison to sister duos like P.S. Elliot or The Breeders.
By comparison, the jaded "No Kid (Gold Star)" slouches in, hands-in-pockets, before exploding into an anthemic Get Up Kids-esque chorus like a sudden snap of teenage rebellion. The song's whistled breakdown recalls the playfulness of early Weezer, and the comparison extends through Emanuel's forceful drumming and shouted backing vocals. And "Wishing Well" lines up a ceaseless sequence of guitar hooks, perfectly paired with a charging bassline, with Anderson and Emanuel's vocals woven into the song via layers of countermelodies, building to a proud and defiant climax with the refrain "I won't let it go."
It was Dan and Courtney's idea to keep the single take of the album’s spare, naturalistic closer “Sunspots” just as it was captured in the basement, recorded using a microphone built into a doll’s head. The resulting recording is a perfect coda to Try Again: A gorgeous, hand-squeezed glass of lemonade made from a decidedly tart lemon.
So we’re right back here, at the moment between childhood and adolescence. When we learn to stand up, shake it off, and to rub some dirt on it. When we still take that leap, with full knowledge of the pain that could be waiting. When we learn to try again.